"Everything you need to know about genetics you can learn from your cat"
Over the last two years Karen Guthrie & Nina Pope of the London art collective Somewhere have been working on a research and documentary project focusing on pedigree cat breeding. They followed pedigree cat owners at cat shows, worked with breeders, and interviewed Dr Leslie Lyons, an internationally-respected authority on feline genetics who ratified the world's first cloned kitten ("Cc") and the first GFP ("glow-in-the-dark") transgenic kitten.
Demonstrating a fascinating mix of scientific knowledge and creative experimentation, breeders have an acute alertness to the aesthetic requirements of their chosen breed, underpinned by the genetic knowledge to safely breed towards the refinement of particular characteristics. Some breeders already utilise genetic testing and collaborate with scientists, bridging the traditional gap between amateur and professional science and providing a flow of information between these two worlds.
Artists/directors Pope & Guthrie have a track record of working with hobby or 'pro-am' groups and are particularly interested in ways that knowledge can be generated by actual 'making and doing' combined with close observation. Pedigree cat breeders show a fascinating mix of scientific knowledge and creativity, their acute sense of the correct look for the cats, underpinned by the genetic knowledge required to breed for 'refining a look'.
The working title of the documentary is Cat Fancy Club. I don't often write about videos, especially those i've never seen. However, the extracts from the documentary i saw at the Euston Road window of the Wellcome Collection a few weeks ago made me want to ask a few questions to the directors of the documentary.
In your documentary, you interview both scientists and amateur breeders. How much genetics manipulation can one really do outside of a university lab?
NP: Well I'm not sure we would describe it as genetic manipulation (!) but one of the aims of the film is to show that you can at least understand a lot about genetics just by observing your cats. The level of genetic knowledge in breeders obviously varies but we are very interested in working with people who find it particularly interesting and have developed a deep understanding of how basic genetics work which they then utilise to plan their breeding programmes. This can affect simple things like trying to breed for particular coat colours, but can also help them to keep the breeds really healthy.
LL: The average person, especially early farmers, have been genetic manipulators for thousands of years. Regular people are responsible for 99% of our animal breeds and varieties of flowers and crops. Most genetic manipulation in the lab is still done the same way, just by breeding animals and selecting for the natural variation. But, now we can move genes from one organism to another - called transgenics. This is a very particular speciality and cannot be done outside of the lab. But the interaction of most breeders and scientists do not pertain to transgenics anyhow - just natural breeding and selection.
I couldn't help but be a bit judgmental when is saw the trailer of the upcoming film and read about genetic research on cats, i had the feeling that there is a huge chasm between my love of cats and the one felt by people participating to cat shows with their hairless cats and LaPerm. I don't quite understand that search for a particular aesthetics. But are amateur breeders only driven by aesthetics? What motivates their quest for the perfect breed? The desire to produce a unique luxury item?
NP: You won't find more cat lovers together anywhere outside of a cat show that's for sure! I guess whether you're into 'moggies' or LaPerms is more about personal taste that anything else. Both of us own rescue cats but that doesn't mean we're not tempted by the amazing range of pedigree cats out there.
KG: For some breeders the thrill of the genetic chase for a particularly rare colour (for example) is very motivating - the tougher and more recessive a gene, the more some breeders work towards bringing it forward - somewhat like bringing a rare orchid to flower from seed! Establishing a new breed of cat and the networks with other breeders and owners is obviously something that particular people also enjoy.
AN: Nine out of ten cats bred by pedigree breeders are for pet homes where they will never be involved in breeding or showing so for the average breeder good health and good temperament are far more important. No one expects to breed the aesthetic ideal but it's a guideline to aim towards. It is ultimately more satisfying for a breeder to be involved with a new DNA screening programme and to eliminate a genetic disease. But showing is designed to promote good health and confirmation, as well as good grooming and care. Cat show judges check for signs of health and penalise 'defects' that impact on a cat's health/welfare.
Did you have any preconception about the world of professional and amateur cat breeding before starting to work on this movie? Did getting in close contact and discussing with them changed you assumptions in any way? For example, do you now desire to own a cat similar to the grey ones featured on that pink image you made?
KG: Some preconceptions - such as that many cat enthusiasts are women of a certain age - are true! One hears of 'kitten farms' where unscrupulous breeders are churning out pedigree kittens just for money, but of course if they are out there mixing with people at Cat Shows and in the Cat Fancy you don't meet them. We were struck often with the very high level of genetic understanding amongst domestic breeders with little or no science education - some breeders are more instinctive, describing their breeding animals' charisma and 'star quality' as what directs them, whilst others really are breeding with genetics so much at the forefront that a litter will rarely contain any 'surprises' - instead the breeder will know exactly what colour kittens to expect and may even have a fellow breeder in another country waiting to acquire and breed forward with a certain kitten.
Like any kind of learned connoisseurship, learning more about how an unusual colour, coat texture or eye colour actually happens, definitely enhances your appreciation of it in a cat. BTW one never owns a cat, it's the other way around! We do have our personal aesthetic tastes - Nina already has a longhaired grey cat, and Karen had until a recent death, two ginger tomcats.
Apart from aesthetics, what else motivates genetic research on cats?
KG: The domestic breeders we've met that are at the forefront of certain breeds (e.g Birman, LaPerm) are as interested in breeding for robust health as aesthetic 'brilliance'. There are instances recently of certain breeders instigating successful breed databases that aim to prevent inbreeding or accidental close crosses by 'mapping' all births of a certain cat breed that occur. This is very ambitious, and it shows how technology is helping make this possible - as an aside, many of the breeders we met involved in creating databases and networking internationally via the web, are quite elderly but really tech-savvy.
A considerable amount of feline genetic research (in the US at least) is supported because of close analogies with human genetics and health: how viruses spread, and kidney problems for example. The cause/s of blindness is one of many research interests of the world's leading feline geneticist Dr Leslie Lyons (UC Davis) who we filmed, and there is strong evidence that tracking genetic blindness and trailing treatments in cats will progress understanding of and ultimately prevention of blindness in humans.
Dr Lyons invites DNA samples from all over the world for her work because she needs to access the widest possible gene pool. She concentrates her work on pedigree breeds because there is then certain known parameters that her material relates to, but in the UK at Bristol University, research is more focused on 'moggies' at large, in one exercise they are collating life-spanning information on a sample of ordinary cats to try and establish what the biggest risk factors are for the cat - I guess it could be anything from proximity to heavy traffic, coat colour, diet...
NP: One of the things that has been most interesting to hear about is that Leslie often finds new leads or clues to genetics through the observations of breeders. Obviously pet owners spend a LOT of time closely watching their cats and this can be invaluable as a way to uncover unusual features and traits. Often breeders will know from observing for generations what to expect from certain pairings, when the actual genetic 'facts' behind these intuitions may actually come out at a later date.
How about the impact of pedigree cat breeding on the personality or physical well-being of the cat? i recently saw a report on tv about how intense forms of dog breeding are creating dogs suffering from brain damages or illness.
KG: In the UK there was quite a furore after a TV doc screened highlighting the link between poor canine health and excessive inbreeding and a certain worry in the cat community that the media would attempt the same with cats, but there really isn't an equivalent argument with felines. Cat breeds never served human purposes (hunting, primarily) as dogs did, so there is much less diversity in size and build across breeds. In the past, there was certainly often a lack of knowledge or disregard of health risks associated with certain breeds - e.g the Persian's congested nose / eyes - but there's a general consensus now that some of those problematic breeds (e.g. Persians) are really falling out of favour now amongst breeders and cat-lovers alike.
NP: One interesting breed is the Korat (a small blue cat), in the UK all Korats have been screened for Gangliosidosis - a genetic disease, which has been diagnosed in Korats - meaning that here through using a genetic screening programme and collaboration with the GCCF (Governing Council of the Cat Fancy) breeders have been able to entirely eliminate the problem and carry on enjoying what is in fact a very old breed of cat originating in Thailand. Breeders had already gained an understanding of how recessive genes work by observing that occasionally they would get unexpected lilac kittens in a litter from two blue parents, observing this helped them to understand that the Gangliosidosis problem could also be 'carried' but not observed in the parent and so testing provided a way around this, meaning no cats were being used that would inadvertently pass on the problem.
AN: Cat breeds have never had the range of problems that dog breeds have had and cat breeders are lucky in some ways that the tradition of cat breeding is not as old as dog breeding because they have been able to learn from the mistakes of the dog breeders and avoid repeating them, and scientific advances mean that cat breeders have all sorts of new tools to avoid the same problems. The GCCF is very keen to make sure that cat breeding never goes down the same road as certain dog breeds. The GCCF is very strict about avoiding any breed related health problems and refuses to recognise several breeds from other countries where there are potential issues and works closely with animal welfare organisations, like the RSPCA and the FAB through the Cat Group consortium. The GCCF genetics committee has produced a general breeding policy for all cats and is currently overhauling all the individual breeding policies for the different breeds to ensure that any genetic health issues are addressed.
KG: Unfortunately no as it's still in production!
NP: To date we have been filming at shows and building up contacts with breeders and scientists alike. The image we made for the Wellcome Trust exhibition shows just how visually different pedigree cats can be. All the cats in the picture have one strong genetic link in common - the gene for a Blue (or in moggie-terms grey!) coat, the image shows in how many wildly different ways this can be expressed.
Thanks Nina, Karen, Leslie and Anthony!
Nina Pope will present Cat Fancy Club as part of Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal at Z33 in Hasselt on 17.02.2011 at 19h00.
Pope & Guthrie have collaborated as artists and film-makers for over a decade and founded their company Somewhere in 2001. Their early career innovated the use of new media in contemporary art practice. 'A Hypertext Journal' (1996) prefigured the blog and 'TV swansong' (2002) utilised early webcasting technology. Their work has consistently innovated in both form and subject, focusing on the motivations and social contexts of ordinary people, and the communication of these stories.
Professor Leslie A. Lyons, PhD is a Professor at University of California-Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, located in the Center for Companion Animal Health (CCAH). Research focuses on the genetics of the domestic cat and the development of genetic tools and resources that assist gene mapping in the cat and other companion animals. Feline research is focused on the discovery of mutations that cause inherited diseases and phenotypic traits and in the population dynamics of breed development and domestic cat evolution.
Anthony Nichols is the chair of the UK LaPerm Cat Club and a long-standing LaPerm breeder who helped to establish the breed in the UK. He has a particular interest in feline genetics and is a member of the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy's Genetics Committee.
Let's pretend it's November 2010 and i'm writing a perfectly timely report from the STRP festival in Eindhoven. Well, i did try at the time (cf. The Physiognomic Scrutinizer and Pattern Recognition - Art for animals) but that was very far from making justice to the programme. STRP is one ambitious art & tech affair which most of the taxi drivers who dropped me to the old klokgebouw venue unceremoniously called 'The Party'. STRP does indeed offers one hell of 10 day long party:
The last edition of STRP attracted almost 30,000 visitors. They came for the concerts and parties of course, but also for the performances, exhibitions, screenings, live discussions, conferences, games and workshops.
The exhibition was particularly exciting with its mix of low tech and high tech. Zilvinas Kempinas' Double O which i had seen only in contemporary art fairs so far is made of just two fans and a strip of recording tape. You switch on the fans and hey presto! you get a sculpture that hovers between sheer poetry and vintage tech. At the other end of the spectrum were works such as Acclair's Art Valuation Service (AVS) that monitors your brain activity as you visit STRP's art exhibition.
For the first time since its creation, STRP dedicated part of his enormous exhibition space to a survey of the work by a young artist. They had the magnificent idea to chose Lawrence Malstaf, an ex-theatre set designer who's been quietly building his artistic career in the mid-1990s. The international new media art circuit discovered Malstaf's work a couple of years ago and his installations have been gracing the likes of ZKM, Vooruit and the Japan Media Arts festival ever since.
Malstaf's most puzzling and iconic works were there. From the now world famous vacuum-packing experience provided by Shrink....
... to the ars electronica anointed Nemo Observatorium:
And then there were pieces which are equally noteworthy but might not have attained the same media-attention just yet. Such as a belt to navigate invisible architecture, the moving labyrinth of Nevel...
... a duo of conveyor belts running very slowly in opposite directions. Rolls and wheels hidden underneath add a tactile dimension to the experience.
I was both attracted and horrified by Shaft which has you laying with your face under a transparent shaft where plates hover and dance until they collide and break on the bulletproof glass. Just. Above. Your nose.
More goodies awaited in the other exhibition rooms:
Lyndsey Housden & Yoko Seyama's Transient Landscapes is a performance installation that constructs and re-constructs the architecture of a room. On entering this field of vertical white lines performers as well as visitors can shape the space into patterns and images reminiscent of cityscapes and landscapes.
I felt immensely sorry for the poor electric fish brought from the Amazon River to be squeezed in a tank, endlessly photographed by curious visitors and form a choir based on their sonified electric fields.
Colin Ponthot's Monster Happy Tape is a blob of used audio tape hanging from the ceiling. By grabbing one of the yellow cables with magnetic heads at their extremity, visitors could play back sounds that might have been registered on the tape. A particular success with the kids who probably needed to be explained what a tape and a walkman are/used to be but also how physical sound can be.
There was also a big plush cat in the adjacent room:
Previously: The flying tree.
The exhibition Alter Nature: We Can, currently on view at Z33 in Hasselt, focuses on artists and designer's visions on the ways humankind has displaced, manipulated or designed nature and how this affects and modifies our concept of 'nature'. Some of the exhibited artworks embrace with enthusiasm this deracination and manipulation of what we call 'nature', others have a more critical take on it. Some rely on basic and quirky ploys, others call on the most scientifically advanced means.
A striking and simple introduction to the exhibition could be Driessens & Verstappen's Morphotheque. The dozens of artificial carrots of the most unusual shape are based on natural carrots that were rejected in distribution centres for not presenting the 'proper' size and shape of a carrot. The works reminds us that it was only a year and a half ago that European Commission abolished its ridiculous ban on 'imperfect' fruit and vegetables.
Morphotheque also refers to the fact that the now almost ubiquitous orange colour of carrots was a political choice. The Netherlands made it particularly popular in the 17th century as an emblem of the House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch independence. White, yellow, red, and purple carrots have long existed but they are now raised primarily as novelty crops.
The House of Orange was also at the heart of the Transgenic Orange Pheasant project. Adam Zaretsky wrote to His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander to propose him the creation of a "Royal Dutch Transgenic Breeding Facility" were orange pheasants would be bred and offered for the royal hunt. The exhibition features images of transgenic pheasants, an impressive genegun, the letter to Prince Willem-Alexander and two videos detailing the project. The manipulation of the colour of carrots doesn't raise an eyebrow but the creation of a pheasant of the same hue triggers more doubts and questions: how far can one go in the creation of a 'royal aesthetic'?
More about Adam's work in Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology.
In Common Flowers, Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara have reverse engineered a type of carnation that was already the result of genetic manipulation. Suntory Flowers genetically manipulated an originally white carnation into blue and sold it under the name Moondust. It was the first commercially available genetically engineered consumer product that was intended purely for aesthetic consumption.
BCL bought the blue flower and using do-it-yourself biotech, cloned it in their kitchen. They later released their cloned flowers into nature along with an how-to-clone manual on their website in order to raise questions of intellectual property and copyright in the realm of nature.
As i mentioned yesterday, the exhibition was rather cruel to trees.
Makoto Azuma' s Shiki 1 features a bonsai tree suspended from a metal frame. The tree represents of course nature. It has been manipulated for aesthetic reasons. The steel frame adds a second layer of artificiality, it represents the legal framework within which nature is manipulated, or to which manipulations must comply.
In 'Frozen Bonsai', a new work commissioned for the exhibition, Makoto sprays a bonsai pine tree with instant freeze and presents this in a transparent fridge. As the ice slowly drains the colour from the bonsai tree, the tree dies - but its beauty is preserved in optimal conditions.
Have a look at this video interview with Makoto Azuma about 'Shiki 1' and 'Frozen Bonsai':
Le Paradoxe de Robinson is a palm tree installed on a trailer. Once you're on the first floor of the exhibition space, you can see its branches swinging in the wind. A tropical tree lost in the Belgian grey Winter.
Tue Greenfort 's big "Wardian Case" protects 50 orchids. Wardian Cases were small greenhouses developed in the 19th century by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward to protect his plants from London air which consisted heavily of coal smoke and sulphuric acid. Wardian Cases not only made it possible for city dwellers of the time to keep expensive orchids and ferns in their home, they also prompted the commercialization of exotic plants: vulnerable plants could now survive the boat journey because they were protected by Wardian Cases. The invention has even been credited for helping break geographic monopolies in the production of agricultural goods, they allowed tea plants to be smuggled out of Shanghai and seedlings of the rubber tree to be shipped from Brazil to new British territories. Wardian Case were a means to - literally - displace nature.
Also part of the exhibition: Acoustic Botany.
System Synthetics is the third winning project of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (see also 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and The Microscopic Opera.) The first edition of competition, launched by the Waag Society with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of biotechnology.
Designer Maurizio Montalti is teaming up with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation to work on an alternative to fossil fuels. He aims to build a transparent bioreactor that will allow the public to see how one fungus breaks down plastic and the other fungus makes bio-ethanol out of it.
Hi Maurizio! This is not the ﬁrst time that you are working with fungi. Can you tell us a few words about your previous project, Continuous Bodies? I am particularly interested to hear more about The Ephemeral Icon. Is the Bio Cover 'tool-product" you present in this project functioning already?
Exactly, you're right. My fascination for these astonishing organisms already started before, and culminated in one of my last works, titled Continuous Bodies; in that investigation I've been looking at physical decay and physical death as natural processes, without which there could be no new life. The project originated as a reaction to the prevalent attitude of denial which usually characterizes people when it comes to be confronted with the loss of a beloved. In order to try and change this attitude I placed my focus towards a better understanding of the realm of fungi and at their fundamental importance in the environment with regard to decomposition and transformation of both organic and inorganic substrates and the resultant cycling of elements; this offered me the opportunity to try and re-qualify the general perception of the public in relation to these organism, usually associated with feelings of disgust and repulsion.
Envisioning alternative possibilities, while questioning different attitudes related to modern human culture and "development" allowed me to highlight some of the potential extended beneﬁts that fungi could provide us. By getting more and more familiar with this organisms, directly experimenting with them and widely diving into the scientiﬁc literature, I got in touch with the ability of a speciﬁc fungus (Phanerochaete chrysosporium) in literally feeding on every kind of plastic, even the toughest ones (e.g. polycarbonate, phenolic resins and so on...); this created the basis for the development of the second part of 'Continuous Bodies', titled The Ephemeral Icon.
The main drive, concerning this part, has been the possibility of neutralizing synthetic materials that do not naturally decompose and that are found to provoke unhealthy, risky consequences for both the human being and for the entire ecosystem.
Merging this ﬁnding with a vision allowed me to create a social narrative to help us questioning our "throw away" culture, while exploiting, in a beneﬁcial way, the resources that this social behaviour created. In order to translate my overall research and address issues related to disposability, plastic toxicity, and the possibility of having fungi being able to "kill" this immortal materials, i focused my attention on a globally well-known iconic object: the plastic monobloc chair. I use this chair as a statement about the life-cycles of consumer products in comparison with the immortality of the materials, most of the consumer products are made of. Highlighting the complementarity of life and death as a whole, with my design, the Bio-Cover, i play with the idea of infusing life in a dead everlasting material, in order to trigger a process of ﬁnal dissolution. At this time, the duration of this process is quite long (but still good if compared to millennia) and takes place in standard lab conditions (sterile environment and speciﬁc set of parameters in relation to temperature, humidity and so on.); this because this ﬁnding is still very young and in need of further explorations regarding the optimal conditions in which the process would develop more efﬁciently in the 'real world'.
Nevertheless, by performing different tests with the fungus on plastic material, one of them ended up being luckily successful, as I've been able to achieve the complete degradation of plastic samples (acrylic rings) in less than ten months.
How much does the research you made for Continuous Bodies inform System Synthetics? Do you see this new project as a natural extension of CB? Do you feel you are ready to tackle your new ambitious project based on what you've learnt with CB? Or do you have to start almost from scratch because the fungus you are going to use in the new project is entirely different from the ones you worked with in the past?
You could say 'System Synthetics' comes as a direct continuation to my previous work; but i would rather say it's an 'evolution' of it. However it looks at something different; if, on a side, it still tries to develop a practical research to show the important contribute that micro-organisms do have in our existence, on the other side it raises new questions and aspires to promote a discussion about a man-made evolution of life.
The possibility of improving the performance of a natural organism (in this case a fungus) to face the consequences of the human indiscriminate action on our ecosystem, is a valid enough reason to give a start to this new potential vast territory of research; i strongly believe, in fact, that we humans, should start recognizing how important it is to team up with other species and organisms and establish with them a symbiotic relationship.
Moreover at the core of my project lies the (unusual) idea of combining the abilities of two
The previous experience in the lab is for sure an important advantage to me, to tackle this new ambitious project; this because I already had the possibility to get familiar with different micro-biological techniques in the study of fungal behaviour and to directly test my hypothesis with a "hands-on" approach. However there's much more to learn and that's what makes this whole project so exciting.
The fungus I'm going to use is the same I've been previously working with, but for instance I never worked before with yeasts (if not for making pizza dough...!) and also, some of the techniques and methodologies that I will adopt in this new process will be for me a totally new discovery and a possibility of gaining new knowledge.
The press release states that your project aims to develop a "publicly accessible transparent bioreactor". does this formula means that the technology to do it will be available for the broad public to replicate the process and produce fuel at home?
Not really, but hopefully in a not-so-distant future, yes.
I say this because the path I'm starting with this project could be a long one. In these next ﬁve months I will create a design of the architecture of the symbiosis of Phanerochaete chrysosporium and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This design will be integrated with a tailor-made bioreactor, resulting in a set-up that efﬁciently would convert plastic into bio-ethanol. The implementation of the design of the new symbiotic life-form could probably take many years of research. I will contribute to this process by deﬁning the conditions under which Phanerochaete chrysosporium and Saccharomyces cerevisiae can co-exist. Moreover I will label the partners with ﬂuorescent proteins, in order to make the interaction between the two organisms clearly visible to the public.
The bio-reactor will be built from transparent materials, allowing the viewer to monitor the complete process. For instance, within the bioreactor the new life-form will be visible.
The viewer will witness that the machine operates autonomously, using part of the produced bio-ethanol as source of energy and having as only input the plastic waste. A process ﬁlm, documenting all the main relevant experiments in the labs, together with visual materials, will complete the exhibition.
The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started working on System Synthetics? How is the collaboration with Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientiﬁc details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?
Yes, absolutely. I already started working on my project, mainly by preparing the ﬁrst cultures of the two selected organisms and organizing the different phases and experiments of these next months; this together with the Kluyver Centre. Of course the whole planning could get re-shaped in the course of the next months, according to the results that I will achieve during the process.
Also I had the possibility of being given a personal working space within the lab, as I'll be present in there most of the time, not only for documentation purposes; i'll be directly responsible for performing the whole experimental part, with the assistance of a small team, which will naturally give me the needed operational instructions for the achievement of a successful outcome.
The process will develop, in any case, on the base of a regular consultation with the leader of the 'Filamentous Fungi' group at the Kluyver Centre, Prof. Han Wosten, with which I feel I already established a strong symbiotic
All images courtesy: the designer.
As promised a couple of days ago, here's the second story about the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, a competition launched by the Waag Society with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics. DA4GA invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of biotechnology.
One of the winning projects is a bulletproof skin named 2.6g 329m/s. Jalila Essaidi is teaming up with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands to provide transgenic human skin with a layer of spider-silk embedded in between the epidermis and dermis. The work purposely asks whether this technological innovation is socially desirable.
'This spider dragline-silk is a product of transgenic research done by Dr. Randy Lewis at the university of Wyoming and Notre Dame and is produced by transgenic goats and more recently also by transgenic silkworms,' the artist explained me. 'This spider-silk is up to five times as strong as steel but still keeps the smooth properties of silk.'
The silk will be woven with special bulletproof vest techniques into a matrix that can be used for culturing human skin cells. Once the flexible bulletproof spider-silk matrix is done the dermatology department of Leiden university medical center (LUMC) will help Essaidi with the embedding process. Finally the skin will be tested at the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) with real bullets and be recorded with a high-speed camera.
Hi Jalila! Is this the first time you are working with genetics? Did you find it difficult to get to grips with this rather techy field? How much of a challenge was it to approach genetics as a visual artist?
I love the techy field, but I have to admit that all the jargon that came with it did scare me off at first. Luckily I've met the right people who can explain even the hardest concepts in common language, which is a rare gift.
I am really glad with DA4GA for making this "world" more accessible for me, I am pretty sure that without this award this project would not have been possible at all. But it also wasn't some magic wand that opened all doors, I had to work really hard to find the right partners that would be willing to help me with the embedding of the silk in human skin. I've been in contact with pretty much every major skin-related research center in the Benelux for this and they all told me it wasn't possible.
Can you give us more details about what you hope to realize with the project 2.6g 329m/s? Is the skin going to repair itself after the shock or will it manage to completely repel the bullet?
The organic skin, made for protection, will be displayed in a steel, sterile life-support frame. Protection needs to be protected.
It will be showing the yet unknown result of the test on the firing range. I am aiming for it to actually repel the bullet, if not the spider silk has the properties to enhance the skin regeneration process.
Where does the name of the project come from?
It is the performance standard for bulletproof vests. 2.6g 329m/s are the maximum weight and velocity of a traveling bullet, from which a Type 1 bulletproof vest should protect you.
The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started to work on 2.6g 329m/s? How is the collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientific details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?
I am still in the planning phase of the project. I will get the spider-silk in cocoons made by the genetically enhanced silkworms. Currently I am testing how to extract silk from normal raw silk cocoons because I am terrified to fail this part with the actual cocoons because mass silk production hasn't started yet and there is a really limited supply for me to work with. (No one in the Benelux has any knowhow how to do this, processing raw silk is all done in countries outside Europe, I have to get my information from books and the internet.)
My collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands really helped me to get in contact with LUMC and NFI since they are both partners of the consortium. The most important part of our collaboration is the vision about safety that we share.
I could imagine DARPA working on bullet-proof skin for future soldiers. But i suspect that your project attempts to convey another meaning and message. Can you tell us how did you get the idea for this project? Which kind of social or ethical reflection do you try to raise with 2.6g 329m/s?
What I want to realize by displaying this installation, made to enhance protection & safety, is to let people realize that safety is relative.
Safety is a balance and when you go to the extremes with it like I'm doing with this project, this will become more visible. Think about complications during surgery for someone with this skin or the development of better weapons to counter this new safety technology. The possible reduced sense of touch? You always give up something else in order to increase safety; this counts pretty much for all forms of safety.
I am not saying that we should not embrace improvements resulting from technology; I am an advocate for increasing funds for all sciences that improve our lives. I am just trying to fuel the ongoing debate about how far we can go to improve safety, how much we can sacrifice in order to feel safe.
And last but not least I want too show the beautiful symbiosis between nature and technique. The organic soft human skin in contrast with the sterile steel life support frame.
Previously: The Microscopic Opera.
Image on the homepage: Yul Brynner in Adiós Sabata.
A few months ago, the Waag Society in Amsterdam teamed up with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics to launch the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award which invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of Life Sciences. The works selected were to be developed together with the country's most prestigious genomics centres.
You might have heard of similar initiatives in the USA or in the UK but mainland Europe doesn't have such a strong tradition of setting up collaboration between research centers and artists/designers. Hopefully, the DA4GA award will pave the way for more partnerships of the kind both in The Netherlands and in the rest of Europe.
The winning projects were revealed last month: a bullet proof skin, an ecological bioreactor and an opera performed by mutated worms. The winning proposals will be exhibited from mid-June until the end of December 2011 but the curious blogger in me wanted to have a sneak peak of the 3 projects before they go on show. In the coming days i'm going to dedicate several posts on the winning works as well as on the award itself. And i'm opening the series with the Microscopic Opera!
Hi Matthijs! I had a look at your portfolio and unless i missed something it seems that you haven't worked much with genetics so far. Did you find it difficult to get to grips with this rather techy field? How much of a challenge was it to approach genetics as a visual artist?
No, I didn't have any experience in this field. When I started working on this project I read Denis Noble's book The Music of Life, which I can recommend to anyone, to become a little bit more familiar with systems biology and genetics. For me as well as for the scientist from NCSB brainstorming on this project together was very interesting. I thought it would be a lot more difficult, but it turned out to work great.
Can you give us more details about what you hope to realize with this project?
In my project I'm using common research tools, but instead of using them for scientific research I use them to create an art piece.
The organisms I use in the installation are C. elegans, used extensively in scientific research, for a wide array of purposes. Often this research involves C. elegans that have been given a mutation that is not visible under the microscope. As a handy tool, researchers give these worms an extra mutation that makes them move in a different way; they are twitching, or moving like a corkscrew, or they become really obese. In my installation I use these handicapped mutants, and translate their movement into sound. The worms are projected in real time on screens behind them. I want to control the movement of the worms to a certain degree with temperature and vibration, to create a composition based on an opera. I'm working on making the worms control a synthesized opera voice, and I try to use the same image analysis algorithms researchers at NCSB use.
With this project I try to research the artistic value of some research tools, and shine a new light on them. On the other hand I'm also fascinated by the worms, who have no idea of the world above them. We are like gods to these little lab worms, following them from their first cell division to their death, manipulating their bodies and mutating their DNA. Are we really like gods, or are we like the worms, unaware of the things above us in a different dimension, the biggest thing becoming the tiniest.
How did you get interested in this humble worm?
C. elegans has been used extensively as a model organism and a researcher introduced me to them. Not only does it move in an elegant way, like its name suggests, it's also the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced. Besides these nice aspects they are also easy to keep and you can even train them to some extent.
The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started to work on Microscopic Opera? How is the collaboration with Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientific details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?
Yes I've started expermenting with the worms and doing some programming. I've also done a lot of discussing with the NCSB team, mostly consulting me on technical issues, but I'll also be working some more in their lab, which I'm very looking forward to.
All images courtesy Matthijs Munnik.