For a number of years, artist Gilberto Esparza has been using recycled electronics, alternative forms of energy and other modern technologies to investigate the action of human beings on the environment. His Urban Parasites are small robotic insects made of recycled consumer goods. They climb, crawl and hang over the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. In 2010, he developed Nomadic Plants, a robot hosting living plants and microorganisms. Whenever its 'guests' need to be fed, the autonomous robot will move towards a contaminated river and drink water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cells, the elements contained in the water are transformed into energy that powers its circuits. The cleaned up water is then sprayed onto the plants.
Like Nomadic Plants, but on a larger scale, Esparza's new research project makes use of microbial fuel cells technology to produce electricity and improve the quality of water.
Autophotosynthetic Plants takes the form a hybrid, self-regulating organism. Part machine, part organic ecosystem, it feeds on organisms found into the sewage water of Lima, Peru, in order to create its own light, energy and be self-sufficient.
As any living organism, Autophotosynthetic Plants features a central system where microorganisms, crustaceans and algae live; a digestive system where bacteria feed on polluted water and transform it into cleaner water that can be used for photosynthesis; and a nervous system made of an electronic network that monitors the activities of the organic parts.
The process is probably better explained in the video below:
The modules create hydraulic network that administers bio-filtered water to the central container, creating an optimal environment where producer species and consumer species from different trophic levels (protzoans, crustaceans, micro algae and aquatic plants) can achieve homeostatic equilibrium. The electricity produced by the bacteria is released as intervals of luminous energy, enabling photosynthesis by the plants that inhabit the central container which thereby complete their metabolic processes. When the organic material present in the microbial cells has been entirely consumed, an electronic monitoring networks pumps out the byproducts generated by the species that inhabit the nuclear ecosystem to the modular cells, restoring the cycle.
The ambitious project not only suggests that polluted water can be used as a source of energy but it also stands as a model that could potentially be applied to other cities, communities and industries.
I contacted the artist to know more about the project (Scroll down if you prefer to read the interview in Spanish):
Hi Gilberto! Where do the electricity-bacteria come from? Did you find them existing already in the contaminated water? Or were there introduced from another source? Are they the same bacterias as in Plantas nomadas?
The bacteria come from the rivers where the samples are taken. One of the bacteria commonly found in organic waste is the Geobacter which has been used in various studies to generate energy by microbial fuel cells. It is the same system that Nomadic Plants is using.
The obvious question is: could the system be implemented on a large scale? Going thus from the scale of an art installation in an exhibition room to a fully functional system used for a whole area of the city?
Yes, all the research centers that are working with this technology have that possibility in mind. The idea is to implement the use of microbial cells in wastewater treatment plants to reduce the power consumption that the plant requires.
Does the system require a lot of maintenance and attention? Or does it pretty much manage itself without any help from you or from scientists?
The installation has analog electronics and multiple sensors that auto-regulate the functioning of the installation. The only maintenance consists in aliment it with wastewater each time a biodegradation cycle ends.
In the video, you explain that you took water from various parts of the city and that each zone of the city had its own level and type of pollution. Could you explain a bit more? How does that translate in the installation? Do the various types of polluted water require different bacteria? produce different intensity or types of energy?
It depends on the area where the samples were taken. In industrial areas, for example, you can find a higher amount of toxic waste that sometimes inhibit bacteria. In other sectors of the city, household waste generate more organic matter. In those waters bacteria feed on this waste and produce more energy and this energy is reflected in the installation in the form in flashes of light that are more intense and that make aquatic plants perform their photosynthetic processes better.
In the video, we see visitors entering the room of Plantas autofotosintéticas wearing a mask. Is it because the installation has a bad smell? Or is dangerous to breathe in? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wyL4jRlqbY
The installation emits bad smells and presents a source of infection for visitors, so we decided to protect them. I find this approach to the work interesting because those same conditions are found in the urban area bordering polluted rivers and their inhabitants are exposed to them all the time.
And now for the spanish version of the interview:
¿De dónde provienen las bacterias que se alimentan de electricidad? Ya existían en el agua contaminada? O lo habías introducido desde otra parte? ¿Son las mismas bacterias en Plantas nómadas?
Las bacterias provienen de los ríos de donde sacan las muestras, una de las bacterias que es muy común en donde se presentan desechos orgánicos es la Geobacter con las que se han estado haciendo diversos estudios para la generación de energía a través de celdas de combustible microbianas. Es el mismo sistema que utiliza Plantas Nómadas.
¿Se podría llevar a gran escala el sistema? Yendo solo así de la escala de una instalación de arte en una sala de exposiciones a un sistema totalmente funcional utilizada para toda una zona de la ciudad?
Sí, todos los centros de investigación que están trabajando con esta tecnología tienen presente esa posibilidad. La idea es implementar el uso de las celdas microbianas en las plantas de tratamiento de aguas residuales para disminuir el consumo de energía que la planta requiere.
¿El sistema requiere mucha atención, mantenimiento? ¿O más o menos se maneja por sí mismo sin ninguna ayuda de usted o de los científicos?
La instalación tiene una electrónica análoga y múltiples censores que autorregulan el funcionamiento de la instalación, el único mantenimiento es proveerle de aguas residuales cada que termine el ciclo de biodegradación.
Depende de la zona en donde se tomaron las muestras, se presentas distintos contaminantes por ejemplo en las zonas industriales se presentan mas desechos tóxicos que algunas veces inhiben a las bacterias. En otros sectores de la cuidad, se presentan más materia orgánica por desechos domésticos, en esas aguas las bacterias se alimentas de estos desechos y producen más energía y esta energía se manifiesta en la instalación como destellos de luz más intensos que hacen que las plantas acuáticas que habitan en el núcleo realicen mejor sus procesos fotosintéticos.
En el video, vemos a los visitantes que entran en la habitación de las Plantas autofotosintéticas con una máscara. ¿Es porque la instalación tiene un mal olor? ¿O es peligroso para respirar?
La instalación despide malos olores y representa un foco de infección para los espectadores, por eso se decidió protegerlos. Esta aproximación a la obra me interesa porque esas mismas condiciones se encuentran en las zona urbanas que colindan con los ríos contaminados y que sus habitantes están expuestos todo el tiempo.
¡Muchas gracias Gilberto!
In the South of Spain runs a river so red and soalien-looking that the Spain tourism board is marketing it as Mars on Earth. NASA scientists even came to the area to investigate the ecosystem for its similarities to the planet Mars.
Due (mostly) to the intense mining for copper, silver, gold, and other mineral in the area, the Rio Tinto is highly acidic, its water has a low oxygen content and it is made dense by the metals it carries in suspension. Its deep reddish hue is caused by the iron dissolved in the water.
Cecilia Jonsson visited the region to collect some of the wild grass that grows on the borders of the Rio Tinto. The name of that grass is Imperata cylindrica. It is a highly invasive weed and its other particularity is that it is an iron hyperaccumulater, which means that the plant literally drinks up the metal in the soil and stores high levels of it in its leaves, stems and roots.
The artist harvested 24kg of Imperata cylindrica and worked with smiths, scientists, technicians and farmers in order to extract the iron ore from the plants and use it to make an iron ring. The innovative experiment brought together the biological, the industrial, the technological and even craft to create a piece of jewellery that weights 2 grams. The project also suggests a way to reverse the contamination process while at the same time mining iron ore from the damaged environment.
While "green mining" aims for a more ecological approach to mining metals, The Iron Ring explores how contaminated mining grounds may benefit from the mining of metals.
Cecilia Jonsson's mining adventures are detailed in the e-book of the project but i found her investigation into the overlaps between nature and technology so fascinating that i contacted her in the hope that she'd agree to an interview. And lucky me, she did!
Hi Cecilia! I am very curious to know more about the way you, as someone who was primarily trained to be an artist, approach the science/technology side of your projects. Do you typically work with experts to assist you in your research? Or do you just learn the skills and work on your own? Or maybe a bit of both?
My constructions are a combination of hypothesizing outcomes plus trial and error, especially within parameters of biology, physics and technology. Informed by methods used in the natural sciences and empirical material in a site-related context. Mostly they take the form as installation which are the result of intense field work.
The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier claimed that the great error of the Surrealists was their own lack of faith: they tried to create the marvelous without really believing in it. "Objects" are often a living metaphor of their own history, their formation. To follow their trace through a wide flow of informative perspectives captures a reverberant relation of objective and subjective distinctions in a sort of intermingled morphology. Built on this quantitative data, the cluster eventually starts to web. When the notion of reality shifts into real it has become a concrete term. Which directs me to sites, material, methods and technologies including disseminated collaborations within other disciplines.
The Iron Ring is an incredible project. You extracted iron from plants and made a ring from what you collected. How did you discover the existence of those iron-containing plants?
Since iron is not the most toxic pollutant, has a low economical and symbolic value and can be virtually scooped up from everywhere, it was tricky to apply the idea to the knowledge base of present-day remediation processes. The research started around five years ago, from my interest for iron in its intrinsic qualities and paradoxical changes. I was looking into experiments of electro-culture, plant communication and how plants can be applied as analytical filters, as a mirroring of their own environment. I found some plants that are more tolerant to iron and are able to grow on this type of contaminated soils. But, most coherent plant studies about efficient iron uptake mostly targeted the human perspective in relation to high organic iron content as an effective adjunct in the treatment of iron deficiency and anemia.
The research was conducted for the project The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra from 2012. The installation shows an ambiguous process of an iron hyperaccumulating plant taking up magnetized iron particles that have been scraped of from a reel-to-reel tape of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. On a later stage the iron was extracted again, glued back to the tape and played, resulting in a reinterpretation of The Four Seasons. This work is a predecessor to The Iron Ring were I was interested in taking a more straight functional and site-specific approach to the grass unique ability to extract and encapsulate iron.
The defined iron hyperaccumulating plant with a minimum required amount of 10000 mg/kg Fe revealed in research articles on plant physiology and biochemistry from the university in Madrid. The constructive study had been conducted on the naturalized weed Imperata cylindrica. Collected from the highly acidic (pH 1.6-2) riverbanks of the Rio Tinto in the mining district Rio Tinto in South-western Spain. That model presented me results and a first equation for the calculations of the Iron Ring.
What was the most challenging aspect in the project? Were there moments you thought it was a mad idea and you'd better give up on it? Or did you know right from the start that everything would go according to plans?
I had actual figures on an expected iron content from the grass in Spain. I knew how to extract iron from organic material and had read about iron reduction and deoxidization processes. It was possible. The next step was to figure out the practical weight of how much bio-ore was actually needed for the process of making a ring of 2 grams. I made some calls to traditionally trained smiths to discuss my idea and I got suggestions on possible processes and an "about" quantity.
The greatest challenge was always the restricted iron quantity to create one ring. The problem isn't the metal but its proportion of mass (quote). The thin ring is a complex form to cast even with industrial produced iron. Cast iron is very susceptible to loss of metallization at high temperatures, such as the melt temperature required for the cast. A consequence of this is that with each new attempt we made there was a continuous formation of slag and an equal loss of iron. The inclusion of even small amounts of some elements can have profound effects. Because of the impurities in cast iron and its crystalline structure, it is a strong material in compression but weak in tension and very brittle. As a result, when it fails, it does so in an explosive manner, with little warning.
The project starts with humble plants and end up with a tiny little ring. But what I found amazing was the amount of craft, heavy industrial processes and knowledge required to go from plant to ring. What have you learnt about the flow of organic matter while working on the project?
From working with iron as material, the matter itself as well as on its interaction with the living. The Iron Ring has really broadened my understanding of the complexity of ecosystems. From the field to the laboratory-scale to craftsmanship and industry, I have had a proper opportunity to build collaborations with proficiency on a wide scale. Their engagement to think out of the box and the connectedness to sort of re-invent and re-discover iron production in our industrial age, has really made a strong impression.
The Iron Ring also highlights the toxic impact of mineral exploitation on the environment. However, you write in the description of the project: "The result is a scenario for iron mining that, instead of furthering destruction, could actually contribute to the environmental rehabilitation of abandoned metal mines." Could you elaborate on this rehabilitation of the abandoned mines? How would that work? What would it be like?
The abandoned mines in Rio Tinto are a no man's land. Apart from tourists who come to visit the unworldly sites, the area continues its forgotten glory to slump and erode. Rio Tinto has a dark, long history of being exploited for ferrous and non-ferrous minerals, copper, gold, silver and lead and due to its historical perspective the rightful ownership of the excavated mess is undefined and beyond present laws of remediation. To stabilize or reduce contamination of sites like Rio Tinto, you first need to analyse the soil and from that result, plant several different types of hyperaccumulating and tolerant green plants.
The project elaborates on this possibility to utilize the cleansing process of the naturalized grass, which overlooked ability is left unutilized. The project proposes to harvest the grass for the purpose of extracting the ore that is inside them. The idea of the ring is to complete the circle, to maintain the clean-up commitment. So that when the soil is stabilized, other native plants can be introduced to restore the biodiversity and help bring back the heritage of flora that was lost through the human activity.
There are many layers behind the "rehabilitation" statement. Which under controlled conditions could include the naturalized grass: Imperata cylindrica in a remediation process where its biomass is utilized for iron production. A larger harvest would also contribute to less complications and a more refined iron production with less slag and more iron in just two steps. Going back to the complexity of ecosystems and my second connotation of the "rehabilitation". Which is to utilize the already inhabited weed to be able to control its spread in the environment. Imperata cylindrica is an aggressive fast-growing perennial grass that can and has become an ecological threat. It's listed as one of the ten worst weeds in the world and is placed on the U.S. Federal Noxious Weed list, which prohibits new plantings. The grass does not survive in cultivated areas but establishes along roadways, in forests and mining areas, where it forms dense mats of thatch that shade and outcompete native plants.
The enigma of use- and exchange-value enchants me as well as the perspectives on precious matter and how it earns its cultural weight. Something that I think Ralph W. Emerson beautifully formulates in What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. A metal is deemed to be precious if it is rare and on account of its material nature and rarity, the high value is linked to its cost of extraction.
How long did the whole process take? From the moment you found the plants to the final realization of the ring?
From when the first plant community was found in Spain to the ring had become one continuous solid, 5 weeks of intensive work.
Could you explain what we can see in the photos of the installation Stratigrafi? What is the strange metallic sculpture?
Stratigrafi is a work developed in collaboration with colleague Signe Lidén. Thematically, we were exploring cavities, man-made places and fundamental changes of the landscape. Exploring the mine as an in-between space a geographical cavity between nature, ideas and technologies and how history works way through its forms. Signe had been in Kakanj in central Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bytom in Poland to explore coal mines. I had gathered material in relation to iron from re-vegetation institutes and large-scale surface mining in the region of the Iron Quadrangle, southeast Brazil. The installation intertwined our works where one was taken inside and introduced to impressions from these places. Representations, imitations, scent, recordings, objects and photographs from the sites.
The metal sculpture is a propane driven apparatus, a citrus distiller. The steam was forced through the citrus material and transported onward through the condenser where the temperature is lowered and consistently forms refined acidic drops and erosion. In the windows scorched wood were piled up and filling the room with intense scent. A video without sound projected an exotic landscape in one meeting with passing carts filled with iron ore. The light table consisted of oscillating reversal film, archive material, seeds, a small projection and an exhibition text written by Roar Sletteland. The visitor obtained an auditory access to these sceneries by putting their heads into listening boxes.
I'm also fascinated by the work Water extraction, Geneva. The work seems to be about global warming. Could you explain the installation?
Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009 was a site specific work consisted of three water extracts, three modified found light bulbs and one light sourced bulb. For the installation, the wooden planks in the floor of the exhibition space were removed, uplifted and were then used to create a platform and a bridged island to the work.
The work looks at the impact that climate change is having on the glaciers and the changes it brings with it. A glacier is important for freshwater storage, while glaciers also can be regarded as reservoirs for the production of electricity through their seasonal water flow. The project focuses on the melting of the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland, which over the past ten years has lost 6% of its mass. The raising temperatures in the region have a strong influence on the seasonal runoff regime of the alpine streams. Where the Rhone glacier runoff with the residues it brings with it, is the main water source for the largest freshwater reservoir in Europe, Lake Geneva.
You are currently in Venice for a residency at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. What are you working on over there? What is the residency about?
It's a three months residency from February to mid May supported by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway. I'm here to develop a new work, a hydrodynamic analogy that acoustically transcribes an interdependent exchange between external forces and internal positive feedback. The Venice lagoon is a delicately balanced natural system that combines to produce one of the largest wetlands in the Mediterranean. Land and water are intermingled. An urban Lagoon, a natural Venice as Marcel Proust captures the reverberant paradox relationship. The project explores the Venice Lagoon's sedimentary environment, its dynamics and composition and is developed in collaboration with the University of Padova at the Hydrobiological Station in Chioggia in the Veneto region.
After Venice, I will be in Helsinki for a collaborative project on magnetotactic bacteria as part of my participation in a research platform for Art and Synthetic Biology at Biofilia, Alto University. In the fall I will undertake a three-month's residency in Marseille at Triangle France. Let's say there are a few larger research projects under development and works that are more in the making for planned venues.
DIYsect is s documentary series 'about the DIY Biology & Biology-Art intersection' and it is rather good.
In Summer 2013, filmmaker Benjamin Welmond and artist-biologist Mary Maggic Tsang traveled across the U.S. and Canada to meet the biohackers, artists, synthetic biologists, writers and curators and talk with them about the possibilities, challenges and dilemmas brought forward by biotechnology. The result is a portrait of DIY biotech hack and biotech art by the very people who are directly involved in it.
The authors of the series write:
I only discovered the existence of the episodes a few days ago (thanks Adam Zaretsky!) The films are short and sharp. They are released as soon as they have been edited. For free. On vimeo. Let's go!
The first episode of the web-series, Learning in Public is of course the introductory one. The directors interview members of the DIY biology movement as well as artists such as Steve Kurtz from the Critical Art Ensemble, Claire Pentecost, and subRosa.
Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror gets political. It starts with the FBI bioterrorism case against Steve Kurtz and then goes on to reflect the FBI's change of tactics. Realizing its errors, the FBI is now reaching out to the DIY BIO community 'for mutual education.'
DIYSECT Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror
Things are gettng tricky with episode 3. Fear of the Unknown which should be out on vimeo today!
The episode delves into the discussions surrounding synthetic biology. On the one hand, a project like the Kickstarter-funded Glowing Plant is creating controversy by bringing synthetic biology to the consumer market in the form of a plant that glows in the dark. Its developers' rhetoric is fairly unconvincing (at least as far as i am concerned.) On the other hand, the technology watchdog group ETC. Its members fear the lack of regulation (the plant doesn't require any form of approval in the U.S. since it is not food) and the potentially damaging impact that the release of the plant might have on the environment. Somewhere in the middle is artist Adam Zaretsky who has long used his provocative performances to try and raise a broader debate about what is ethical or not in the field of synthetic biology. There's this great moment in the film when he explains that we don't really know what we are doing and that we need to stop and think before we 'fuck up our world' beyond human control.
On a side note, i believe we need to see more of Zaretsky's provocations and reflections here in Europe, so let's help him fund his next trip to the old continent.
Image on the homepage: Critical Art Ensemble in Halle/Saale, Germany performing "Radiation Burn: A Temporary Monument to Public Safety", October 15th 2010.
A bio art exhibition is a rare occurrence. A good bioart exhibition -one that makes you marvel at the art, question the science, ponders upon where all this means for society- is even more extraordinary. So if you're in, near or not ridiculously far away from Eindhoven, do go and visit Matter of Life. Growing new Bio Art & Design at MU. There's only a couple of weeks left to see the show but if i were you, i'd try and pop by on the 1st of March for the Matter of Life closing party. The subtitle of the event is Food Phreaking which sounds exciting enough.
MU and guest curator William Myers have selected nine projects 'at the intersection of life sciences, art and design.' Three of them are the winning projects of the Bio Art & Design Award 2014 (previously Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award), a competition for young artists and designers hoping to collaborate with research institutes in order to develop works that use biotechnology in critical and compelling ways. A couple more projects in the show are authored by artists who have worked with the competition in the past. But what matters more to me is that there is a good balance of speculative scenarios and very down-to-earth experiments in this exhibition. One moment you're dipping carrot sticks into a barbecue sauce made from 'supermarket mutants'. Next, you're wondering about the impact that commercial interests might have on natural selection.
Here's a quick overview of the works i haven't written about over the past few weeks. Starting with a work that took me by surprise:
Jarvis first has to undertake a rectoscopy. The colon tissue collected will be grown in vitro and then submitted to a series of mutations that will make it cancerous.
The project is about being able to look at cancer as we would look at other parts of ourselves. I am interested in actually seeing cancer 'in the flesh' - in making tangible something that is usually discussed in metaphors and in doing this exploring (evaluating?) the function of these metaphors when faced with the actual material.
ET IN ARCADIA EGO also echoes one of Jarvis' previous works ERGO SUM in which she used stem cell technology to create a kind of 'back-up' self. While ERGO SUM explored how personalised medicine might enable us to extend our lives, the new work is using similar technology to explore the mechanisms of mortality.
The sample will also be used in professor Hans Clevers' scientific research to study how cancer occurs in the body. The cells are of particular interest to him as they are the first he will have access to coming from a healthy patient sample.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Invisible
Heather Dewey-Hagborg's most famous work, Stranger Visions, made her realize that genetic surveillance is a real threat. "It just struck me that we were having a national dialogue about electronic surveillance, but this form of biological surveillance isn't being discussed," she told The Verge.
Invisble, which she is showing as part of Matter of Life, claims to be the answer to any fear of DNA profiling we might have. Citizens eager to avoid DNA surveillance can either buy the Invisible sprays or follow the recipe and make their own. To become genetically untraceable, you need to first spray Erase to any surface where you might have left some DNA evidence. You then follow with Replace, a spray containing a blend of genes that will 'confuse' any remaining trace of DNA.
Špela Petrič worked with the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research to build a windmill-like structure that serves as a habitat for sea life. Once released into the North Sea, the tetrahedron form would gently drift in unpredictable path, collecting sea plants, bivalves and other small creatures along the way. At some point though, the weight of the organisms accumulated will sink the whole colony.
The research, design and building of this work in the context of a research institute investigating aquaculture also challenges us with a question the artist poses "can the human fathom an investment into structures and processes that are non-utilitarian for the human?"
Naval Gazing was one of the winning projects of the BioArt & Design award. I think it was by far the strongest of the three. Unexpected, strangely alluring and challenging the audience to think differently about our relationship to nature.
The use of homing pigeons as messengers can be traced to thousands of years ago. Ancient Romans used them to spread news within their Empire. And the Greeks sent pigeons to communicate the results of the Olympic Games to other cities. Studio PSK, another winner of the Bio Art & Design Award, teamed up with the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies at the University of Groningen to explore how economic pressures might one day shape the species' genetics, replacing thus natural selection. In PSK scenario, the bird becomes a tamper-proof biological courier used by biotech companies to protect their intellectual property.
Increasing competition between the Biotech and Pharma giants has sparked the 'Cold War' of the drug industry, with Genetic theft and piracy costing the industry billions, pressurising companies to take ever more inventive steps to protect their intellectual property.
In order to protect the most sensitive data from falling into the hands of competitors, Genicom Lifesciences, one of the smaller enterprises based in Hyderabad's Genome Valley, is using pigeons as a kind of 'offline data transfer' in an attempt to securely deliver genetic data to its research partner Nayat Pharma.
As the title of their work suggests, Julia Kaisinger and Katharina Unger have explored how to grow food from toxic plastic waste. The process involves fungi. The result in the plate is even more discouraging than anything i might have imagined.
Also part of the exhibition: Cobalt 60 Sauce, a barbecue sauce made from 'supermarket mutants' and FATBERG: Building An Island of Fat and A Simple Line. A zebra finch ponders upon abstraction.
Matter of Life. Growing new Bio Art & Design is at MU in Eindhoven until 1 March 2015.
I'm sure you've heard about Jalila Essaidi's work before. She is an artist who uses biology as an artistic medium, the founder of the BioArt Laboratories Foundation and the author of one of my favourite books about bioart: Bulletproof Skin, Exploring Boundaries by Piercing Barriers. And yes, she is also the artist behind the famous Bulletproof Skin project.
Essaidi is currently participating to the exhibition Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design at MU in Eindhoven with a less headline-grabbing but equally fascinating work called A Simple Line. The installation looks at how the thin line between reality and abstraction is taking shape inside our brain and more precisely at the level of the 'simple cells' that are responsible for the formation and perception of the abstract concept of a line.
With 'A simple line', Essaïdi attempts to merge the abstract idea of a line with its most tangible reality by having a zebra finch look at its own brain cells in the form of a line. The result of her experimentation joins the organic (a bird inside a cage), the abstract (colour block lines) and even the conceptual.
A few words with the artist:
Hi Jalila! Do you have a link to the research about specific cells (simple cells) that are responsible for the formation and perception of the abstract concept of a line?
Information processing and specifically the functioning of simple cells find its origin in the research of Hubel and Wiesel. These cells were discovered in the late 1950s. It would be hard to pin point a specific article that would be interesting for your readers but I think the videos of Hubel and Wiesel's cat experiments say more than a thousand words. There are several available online.
Serendipity & discovering simple cells:
Simple cells & complex cells, tests that show* how the cells are reacting to orientation specific lines:
*What you are hearing are the cells -connected by electrodes placed in the brain- firing when stimulated
How does the installation work? What is it made of? What do we see in the two tubes?
I have the feeling this question is technical/practical in nature so I am skipping the intent of the work, which of course is a vital part to the question "how".
What you see is the setup needed to merge the abstract idea of a line with its most tangible reality.
The installation is a work in progress; inside the tubes a line made of simple cells is visible. The cells are attached to a thin floating horizontal structure, which acts as a scaffold. The entire installation is designed to offer an optimal environment by controlling the temperature and composition of the atmosphere inside the inner tube, containing the line.
The next stage of the work would be an exploration into golden support structures, how to preserve the line outside of its current environment, and how to combine these preserved lines into their final form.
Is there a particular reason why you chose a zebra finch? rather than any other bird, or even a mouse or a bug?
Zebra Finches are, just like Zebra Fish, a model organism in scientific research. At the Bio-Imaging Lab of Antwerp University they research plasticity of the Zebra Finch brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging. These studies give us new insights in for example Alzheimer's disease. My intention was to visualize the capacity of simple cells to detect lines using fMRI and make that the foundation of the project. This turned out to be not possible with current fMRI technology (of which they have at Antwerp the state of the art).
But even with fMRI out of the picture, the Zebra Finches stayed. Their brain being mapped out in histological- (for example http://www.zebrafinchatlas.org/)and digital three dimensional atlases simplified the entire process and of course their traditional birdcages -made mostly out of lines- charmed me and they felt like a natural choice for the project.
How did you get the brain cells of the bird?
The cells aren't from the actual birds in the birdcage, but from zebra finches that passed away due to old age.
Any upcoming project, research, event you'd like to share with us?
There will be an event on February 7th 2015 at MU Artspace where there will be a reflection on the work from the arts, philosophy and neurosciences. The evening will be in the format of a talk show.
I'm working on /researching a new project again with spidersilk which I hope to present at the end of 2015.
A Simple Line is part of the exhibition Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design at MU, Strijp S, in Eindhoven. The show remains open until 22nd February 2015.
Don't forget to send your proposals to the BIO ART & DESIGN AWARD. The three winning ideas will be awarded €25.000 to fully realize a new work of art or design that pushes the boundaries of research application and creative expression. They will be developed in collaboration with a Dutch research institution then exhibited to the public in MU Art Space in Eindhoven at the end of the year. The deadline for applications is 2 February 2015.
It flows throughout our bodies and yet some of us faint when they see a drop of it. It is a key features in stories of vampires and children fairytales. It is the fluid that is most closely associated to life but also to the Ebola virus, diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and other life-threatening conditions.
The 25 artworks that make the exhibition BLOOD (Not for the faint-hearted) aptly reflect the complex space that blood occupies in our cultures. From the vampire killing kit to the video of stem-cell extractions, from the luminol dripped down onto a sculpture made of blood and resin to Hermann Nitsch's cathartic Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries, all grounds seem to be covered: history, pure science, crime, medicine, literary fiction, ethics and taboo.
A couple of works in the show might be upsetting for some and indeed the gallery recommends it to the 15+. Strangely enough, i had no problem visiting the show but writing about it makes me far more uncomfortable. I could not even watch the video of Maria Phelan's work MYTYPE.
One of the works that opens the show is a documentation of Que le cheval vive en moi! (May the horse live in me!), a performance in which Marion Laval-Jeantet was injected with horse blood plasma. This bold self-experiment continues the artistic duo's exploration of trans-species relationships.
In the months preceding the performance, Marion Laval-Jeantet built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies by being injected with horse anibodies. The artists called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same. Once her body was ready, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign antibodies, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.
In this Science Gallery interview below, Benoit Mangin explains how Marion was able to hide the eyes of the horse. A horse would normally react very violently to having his eyes covered but somehow, the animal didn't perceive her as being an entirely different organism.
Nearby, lies the apparatus used by surgeon Robert McDonnell on a fourteen year old girl whose arm was torn and lacerated while she was working in a paper mill. Robert drew 350 millilitres of blood from his own arm and syringed it back into Mary Anne. The girl's condition improved for a short time, but she died the day after. It was the first human-to-human blood transfusion performed in Ireland.
John O'Shea is showing a video recipe of his renowned delicacy, the Black Market Pudding. Just like we get milk from cows and eggs from chicken without the need to kill them, we could also get fresh blood from pigs and make black pudding, a type of blood sausage commonly eaten in Britain and Ireland.
The blood is extracted from living pigs via a routine veterinary procedure and the whole business model ensures that the pig grows old peacefully. Kind of. And because vegetarian suet is used to emulsify the ingredients, the black market pudding is branded as being an ethical animal product.
Quinn is participating to the show with a wax model of his baby son. The sculpture is made of wax mixed with animal blood and protein his son is intolerant to. The work is thus both tender and savage. It evokes the love for a child and the cruelty of appropriating the blood of a non-human animal.
Professor Peter Arnds is showing a fascinating collection of German children's books in which children come to harm and blood is shed, posters that detail the Nazis' obsession with blood and its purity, and a short video on the Nazis' ideology of blood.
It turns out that children's literature and folktales are quite at ease with the depiction of murder, cannibalism and other violent scenes. In Germany and elsewhere. One example of this is Charles Perrault's version of Little Red Riding Hood from 1697or the Grimm Brothers' original fairytales.
There is a lot of humour in the gallery as well. STAINS™ is a fake company that challenges the hypocrisy of marketers trying to sell female menstrual products while showing blue liquids and pretty girls laughing in the sunshine.
Visitors to the exhibition are invited to take a selfie with one of the blood stain broaches made by STAINS™ and share the photo via the Twitter with the hashtag #periodpositive. You can also buy the blood stains as earrings or pendant.
More images from the show:
The exhibition was curated by curator and media studies scholar Jens Hauser, haematologist Prof Shaun McCann, Immunologist Prof Luke O'Neill, literary and cultural scholar Prof Clemens Ruthner and Science Gallery Dublin director Lynn Scarff. It remains open at the Science Gallery Dublin until tomorrow, Friday 23rd of January.