This week (or rather semester since i so seldom do proper interview nowadays), I'm talking with Svenja Kratz , an interdisciplinary artist who combines art practice with cell and tissue cultures to investigate the creative and critical dimensions of biotechnologies as well as their impacts on concepts of identity, life, and death.
Svenja has a background in art but she also holds a PhD in Contemporary Art and Biotechnology from Queensland University of Technology and worked at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovationin Brisbane, where she completed a PhD in bio-media art.
So far, the artist has worked with media as diverse as fetal calf cells, human blood, maggots, multi-component 3D Human Skin Equivalent (HSE) models or taxidermied insects. She is currently participating to Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art with an ever-changing face mask that uses Saos-2, a cell line that originally came from the bone cancer lesion of an 11 year old girl who died in 1973 and whose body was donated to science. The cells of the little Alice can now be found in science laboratories around the world. Their presence in an art installation highlights the transformative capabilities of Alice's cells but also the oddity of using living fragments of a human body that died 40 years ago.
The work is called The Contamination of Alice: Instance #8 and since i can't travel to Melbourne to see it, I thought the next best thing would be to write Svenja and interview her via email:
Hi Svenja! Your work Afterlife "looks at the ethical ambiguities and challenges that accompany the use and manipulation of organisms, in particular the use of Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) in cell and tissue culture." What are those ethical ambiguities and challenges? And how does the work addresses them?
The work Afterlife was a starting point for the development of The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama, a project researched and developed during a three month residency at SymbioticA in 2010. The work developed from my engagement with cells and tissues and particularly the materials that are used in biotechnology such as FBS - a protein rich nutrient supplement used in the media to sustain cells in culture. The serum is derived from the blood of fetal cows. While the idea of draining unborn calves of their blood may sound horrifying, the calves are essentially a bi-product of meat production and while their blood is harvested to produce serum, their bodies are discarded, deemed unfit for consumption.
This work does not aim to demonise the meat industry or the use of FBS, but rather comments that there are victims at every level of consumption, and that the boundaries between good and bad are always blurred. For example, the common practice of slaughtering pregnant cows, and subsequent availability of fetal calf blood, has enabled great advancements in cell and tissue culture and contributed to the development of new medical technologies and treatments for humans and other organisms. This is the same for many cell lines, such the HeLa cell line, isolated from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Establishment of this, the first human cell line, was a medical breakthrough, contributing significantly to the development of vaccines and scientific research. However, the HeLa line also caused significant distress to the donor family, as the cells were used without the knowledge or consent of Mrs Lacks.
My work aims to draw attention to the often unseen donors or victims of processes of consumption and advancement, but also the shifting boundaries between how we understand life and death. I feel we need to understand that that there are always positives and negatives, and that our technologies and attitudes often reflect current cultural values.
You work with living matter. What are challenges of exhibiting your works? How do you keep them alive for the whole duration of a show for example?
One of the most demanding aspects of working across art and science, and particularly preparing living work for exhibition, are the ethics, biosafety and risk assessments that must be completed to ensure that the work follows ethical guidelines, all risks are minimised and the work is non-hazardous for viewers and installation staff.
You also work with fairly sophisticated technologies. How do you manage to communicate both artistic ideas and scientific innovations that are not that well-known to the public without overwhelming them with complex explanations?
In trying to communicate my ideas, I often focus on storytelling, interweaving scientific concepts with personal experiences and observation, cultural narratives and philosophical ideas. However, this is something I need to continuously work on. When I first started working across art and science, I think I was actually much better at communicating underlying scientific ideas, as my understanding was limited and I was only familiar with lay language. As my knowledge has developed, I sometimes include scientific terms without thinking. Consequently, I often ask my arts colleagues to read my work to ensure the key ideas are clear and understandable, and that I have not included too much superfluous jargon.
You are showing Contamination of Alice #8 at the Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art. For this piece you used human DNA to explore the transformative capabilities of cancer cells. Could you explain us what this involves exactly?
The Contamination of Alice, refers collectively to a series of individual works originally inspired by the experience of my Saos-2 cell (bone cancer cell line originally isolated from an 11 year old. girl, Alice) cultures becoming contaminated by a fungus when I was working in the laboratory at IHBI in 2009. While this resulted in the required disposal of the cultures, to minimise the risk of further infection - something that was initially devastating - it really got me thinking about how different organisms take advantage of environmental opportunities, as well as the difficulty of maintaining ongoing containment and control over nature. The loss of the cell cultures also encouraged me to consider the creative potential of the experience and how contamination could be perceived positively as unexpected growth and discovery, rather than something unclean or unwanted. The contamination of the cells was actually a trigger to start exploring microbiology.
The latest instance within the series which was commissioned for Experimenta forms part of this ongoing exploration and connects to Alice's cells, my lab experiences and notions of becoming, transformation and the interconnections between organism and environment. Through the inclusion of Alice's DNA (isolated from her cultured cells), the work also starts to engage with genetics and the fact that DNA is not a fixed code, but subject to environmental influence through gene switching. While all Agar faces are made of the same material, the display of the work at a new location will result in different bacterial and fungal colonies, based on the microbes in the new environment.
How did you get to work with the Tissue Repair and Regeneration Group at Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology?
I started working with the TRR group as part of my PhD research which aimed to explore the creative and critical potentials of cross art-science practice. I was very fortunate in finding a scientific supervisor willing to take me on, train me and fully integrate me into her research group. The support from my supervisor and the entire TRR team enabled me to complete my own lab work and gain first-hand insight into biotechnologies, particularly cell culture and tissue engineering.
I read that in 2013 you undertook a 5-month residency at Leiden University and the Art and Genomics Centre in The Netherlands to explore mutagenesis and bioengineering for future energy production. Could you tell us about this research?
Thanks to the Premiere's 2012 New Media Scholarship from QAG/GOMA, I had the opportunity to complete a six-month residency at Gorlaeus Laboratories at Leiden University in The Netherlands from July to December 2013. The residency formed part of the large-scale Biosolar Cells research programme, which focuses on the potential of solar energy for long term sustainable energy production. While the programme encompasses a variety of research areas, I was integrated into the Solid State NMR group led by Professor Huub de Groot under the supervision of Professor Wim de Grip and PhD candidate Srividya Ganapathy. The project I worked on aims to increase the absorbance spectrum of light powered protein pumps, which are proteins used by Archaea (single-celled microorganisms) to convert sunlight into chemical energy. If successful, the increase in absorbance spectrum enable the proteins to use more of light spectrum to create energy with strong implications for biofuel production. During the residency, I was fortunate to take part in site-specific mutagenesis experiments in which we made highly specific changes to the DNA sequence of the protein in order to induce a shift in absorbance spectrum. I am one of the few artists that can legitimately claim: "I helped make a mutant".
Why do you think it is important for an artist to get in close contact with science like you do?
I personally have found that working closely with research scientists and engaging with new and emerging biotechnologies has enriched my practice and understanding of biology, new and emerging biotechnologies and the complex ethical issues involved in working with living organisms. Being able to work closely with research scientists has also challenged many of my own assumptions and revealed that artists and scientists, despite governed by different objectives and methodologies, rely on tacit knowledge and understand that discovery is emergent and requires an openness to the unexpected. The combination of art and science is also important as it enables the subjective to enter into scientific discourse and research arenas traditionally dominated by a search for 'objective truth'. By drawing on, and incorporating, personal experiences, speculative potentials and historical events, the work makes room for multiplicity and can help reveal the way in which knowledge is always situated, provisional, and intimately connected to personal, social, and cultural values.
What's next? What are you working on right now?
At the moment I am developing a series of holographic display chambers in collaboration with micro-electronics engineer Michael Maggs, based on my 2013 residency in The Netherlands, that engage with ideas surrounding real and imaginary biotech mutants. I am also working on a series of individual works that operate as thought experiments regarding the idea of genetic legacy, and how, as single woman in my 30s, I might use biotechnologies to ensure my genetic line continues without having children. I am also interested in exploring the emerging field bio-fabrication and am hoping to secure funds to create responsive 'bio-robots' using 3D bio-printing techniques. What can I say...the future is exciting!
Experimenta Recharge, the sixth international biennial of media art, remains open until Saturday 21 February 2015. In Melbourne.
Last week Matter of Life, an exhibition that showcases exciting new works of bioart and bio design, opened at MU in Eindhoven. And a few weeks earlier, MU had also hosted the launch of the FATBERG which, as its name suggests is a floating island made of fat.
Mike Thompson and Arne Hendriks are behind this project of a lump of lard that wants to be as big as an oil rig. The designers were directly inspired by last year's story of the London fatberg, a solidified mass of grease and oil, baby wipes, and other sanitary items thrown into the sewage system.
While fatbergs are clogging in sewer systems in cities around the world, they have also been identified as a source of fuel. According to Thames Water, the London sewage fat could be burnt and used to produce enough electricity to power just under 40,000 average sized homes.
Hendriks and Thomson are looking at fat under a different angle though. They are planning to use pure fat to build a structure as big as an oil rig. Not as a speculative design project, but as a process that will generate insights and tools that facilitate a paradigm shift through the creation of the FATBERG itself - "inspirational data" to stimulate the imagination.
The issues explored involve the bad reputation of fat (fat used to be something useful in our cultures. Nowadays, it's an invader we need to fight and annihilate), the physical and biological constitution of fat, its reactions to the immediate environment, the many challenges posed by the increase in scale, the possibility of having it float over a canal in Amsterdam, etc.
The ingredients for Fatberg so far consist of a mix of 70% beef fat and 30% pork fat as so far this blend creates the optimal material for building. The designers are, however, planning to be do further experiments with fats of a variety of sources and compositions.
Thompson and Hendriks are popping by regularly at MU to inject fat over the fatberg and see it grow in its glass 'incubator' and tip over when its balance is unsettled. They are also planning to organize a "Fat Drive" in the new year at MU, where members of the public are invited to donate their fats for the creation of FATBERG. Follow their blog for the upcoming details about the event.
FATBERG: Chapter 1: Beginning To Build An Island of Fat is part of the Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design exhibition at MU, Strijp S, in Eindhoven. The show remains open until 22nd February 2015.
Publisher Leonardo/Olats writes: Artists have opened new avenues in the art world by employing these developments in biotechnology, synthetic biology and Artificial Life; going from inanimate to autonomous objects to living creatures; exploring the thin border between animate and inanimate; confronting the grown, the evolved, the born and the built; and raising aesthetic but also social, political and ethical issues.
New forms of 'exo-life' may not arrive on Earth from outerspace by hitching a ride on a meteorite, but instead come out of the lab, designed by scientists - or perhaps artists - weaving together biology and computing in a petri dish or bioreactor.
Over the last fifty years our ideas about the nature of life have changed dramatically. Revolutionary advances in genetics and molecular biology have given us new insights into how carbon based life on our planet originates and functions. In more recent years the development of synthetic biology has dramatically expanded our ability to design and modify life forms. At the same time, disruptive developments in computing technologies have led to the possibility of generating digitally-based artificial life. And outside traditional institutions, emerging DIY, bio-hacking and citizen science movements have begun to appropriate laboratory technologies, challenging ideas about the governance of the life sciences.
Meta-Life is an anthology of articles published in Leonardo about the living, the non-living and the 'kind of living' in all their forms. There are 45 articles in total, some date back to the 1990s, others are newly commissioned texts. In fact, the whole DIY Biology - BioHacking section is composed of new commissions.
A quick look at the titles of the sections demonstrates the wide-range of themes explored: Between Bio, Silico and Syhtetic: Life and the Arts reflects on how our notions of life and of art are challenged both by computer technology and biotechnologies; Artificial Life and the Arts as well as the section called BioArt contain theoretical and philosophical texts about both fields, Bio - Fiction, Design, Archictecture explores the thin border between reality and fiction; DIY Bio - BioHacking proposes various points of view on the bio DIY movement.
I haven't been through the whole ebook but i've read most of the articles and so far, so very good. To be blunt, I don't trust Leonardo to publish texts that are approachable and engaging. Intelligent, informative and thought-provoking, they do very well but appealing to broad(ish) audiences? I wasn't not so sure. Well, that's where i was very wrong. There is no abstruse language nor complex theories in this ebook. Trust me, I deliberately looked for it.
Here's just a couple of examples of the essays i've enjoyed, in no particular order:
Dr Craig Hilton writes about his collaboration with artists Billy Apple® to create what is simultaneously a subject of art and of scientific endeavor. This project consisted in growing the first biological tissue made available for artists and the first biological tissue for science research made available by an artist as art. The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® is a work of art that lives, multiplies and has the potential to create other works of art ad infinitum, especially because there is no restriction placed on the use of the Billy Apple® 's tissue.
The flamboyant Adam Zaretsky authors a sex-infused manifesto about the utopias surrounding the art (manipulation) of the living.
Following the exhibition GROW YOUR OWN ... Life After Nature, Michael John Gorman offers a coherent and crystal-clear introduction to synthetic biology, in which he also manages to include a few reflections on intellectual property, ethical and regulatory framework, media frenzy, and market interests.
Anna Dumitriu explores the relationship between bacterial and digital communications networks through the lessons she learnt while working on her project Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0.
Steve Tomasula places bio art into the context of the tradition of manipulating nature for aesthetic reason.
Oron Cats investigates the concept of being alive or 'just kind of living.' He makes some important points about the absence of a cultural language that would help audiences deal with tissue culture and other fragments of life. How should we culturally articulate and position lab-grown life when we have no cultural reference that would allow us to relate to it?
David Benqué has an enlightening conversation with independent synthetic biologist Cathal Garvey. The discussion explores the difference between DIY biology and BioHacking, the fear of biotechnology escaping the labs, the cost of creativity in biology, etc.
The first text i ran to was actually Alessandro Delfanti's research about DIY biology and its position in the world of science, the world of the market and the state.
I think i could go on and on. I carried Meta-Life in my e-reader throughout the Summer and enjoyed dipping in and out of it. I think that this collection of texts by illustrious artists, designers, and researchers constitutes a great reference to anyone who has a mild-to-strong interest in how the art world is exploring the synthetic and the aesthetic, the artificial and the new natural, the fictional and the ethical dimensions of life.
Get that one for your Kindle, it's a gem.
Image on the homepage: Brandon Ballengée. Malamp Reliquaries, 1996-ongoing. Unique IRIS prints on water-colour paper. 2003-07.
The Oaxaca Valley in Mexico is regarded as the heartland of corn diversity. Not only can cultivation of the plant in the region be traced back to over 6000 years ago, it also presents the highest genetic diversity of corn in the country.
Yet, this rich and ancestral biodiversity is threatened by the introduction of genetically modified seeds in the region. In November, 2001, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley published an article in the journal Nature in which they reported that some of Oaxaca native corn had been contaminated by pollen from genetically modified corn. Unsurprisingly, the essay was heavily criticized by academics who had suspicious ties with the biotechnology industry.
An exhibition at the MACO, Oaxaca Contemporary Art Museum, reflects local attempts to preserve Oaxaca's rich genetic heritage. The 'corn issue' cannot be reduced to a fight against the transgenic industry, it is also a battle to preserve a whole culture, an identity and a certain vision of the world.
Bioartefactos. Desgranar lentamente un maíz (Bioartefacts. Slowly treshing corn) presents 9 installations which highlight the 'artefact' nature of corn. The plant is a biological artefact because it is the result of a human domestication that took place thousands of years ago and it has in turn shaped the whole country over as many years.
The works exhibited include a robot that 3d prints then plants seeds made of a biopolymer created from corn (PLA), an installation that monitors and visualizes the breathing of corn as well as a series of corn plants connected with electrodes to record the interaction between plants and humans.
I haven't visited the show but the theme, the works selected and the political undertones deserved to be further investigated so i contacted María Antonia González Valerio, curator of the exhibition and director of Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science), asked her for an interview and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.
Hi María! Could you explain the political and economical context of the exhibition?
The exhibition faces a difficult political and economical context in Mexico. Political decisions, in general, are being taken without including the actual living conditions and opinions of Mexican people. This makes us ask how is a community organized, how is it build. Which, of course, has no easy answer. It depends not only on the cultural context of the community, but also on the economical context. Diversity of possibilities of organization is something that we want to stress with the exhibition. Given the political context, that is very artificial and faraway from everyday life, and given the economical conditions, that in general terms and related to politics are benefiting the big and international enterprises, we need to find a way to preserve cultural diversity and biodiversity. This is not an easy task. But if we can show that there are many ways to dwell in this world, and that the capitalism-Western style is still not the only one, but a possibility among others, then we are making a strong point. It is then very important to highlight the complexity of the problems, the many perspectives, the way in which they are related and co-dependent, that is, that economical and political context have a lot to do with cultural diversity and biodiversity.
Why does the exhibition focuses on corn, rather than any other cereal or edible plant?
Corn is a special plant for Mexico. It has many layers for us. Corn is related to cultural identity, land, food, religion, mythology, rites, family, economy, animals, etc. By stressing the ways in which corn is produced, grown and used in different contexts, we want to meditate on the different aspects that constitute also different worldviews.
Corn is still the basis of Mexican nourishment. What is the relationship that we have to our food? We can at least point to the industrialized way in which it is being produced in the north of the country, the traditional way like in rural Oaxaca, and the indigenous way also taken Oaxaca as an example. From the very much-mediated relationship to food that we have in the cities where everything comes from markets and supermarkets, to the self-subsistent system of corn growth and consumption in rural Oaxaca, we can think about the different ways in which we build our world. Instead of thinking of opposites, I believe that people from the cities have a lot to learn from the countryside, not only in respect to food consumption, but also from the different ways of life. In the same sense, the city has a lot to teach to the countryside.
We cannot face the problem of corn, food, GMO's, biotechnology, etc. only thinking about economical, biological or scientific issues, the cultural aspect is very important. When we talk about different ways of producing corn, from rural to industrialized, we are not talking only about machines or monocultures, but really about cultural diversity.
Art is one of the better ways to show this cultural diversity that at the same time is intimately related to the natural world, which for us now means also the production and designing of "bio-artifacts". Corn is a bio-artifact. But we have to learn to see degrees, nuances and be more specific in the kind of analysis that we make when we draw a border between the natural and the artificial.
In Europe, GMO are submitted to very strict regulations. The U.S.A. are notoriously far more favorable to GMOs. How is the situation in Mexico and what is the state of the debate about 'native' corn vs transgenic corn?
For the moment, there is a prohibition in Mexico to continue with the planting of transgenic corn, not even for experimental purposes, because it has been demonstrated that all our country has corn biodiversity, not only the south, and that therefore all the territory must be protected from contamination. Being also the center of origin of corn, puts us in the special condition of watching for biodiversity.
But it is very important to say, and we have previously demonstrated this, that we are importing corn seeds from the USA, some of them are transgenic and germinal. Non-human animals are being fed in Mexico with transgenic corn. There is not an adequate surveillance from the Mexican government in regard to the importation of these seeds. And since we are bound to buy corn to the USA, because of the NAFTA, and the USA is producing transgenic corn, we are very worried.
It can be said that there is no problem with transgenic food, but there is no consensus in the scientific community about this. And this should be enough to have more precaution. But I insist, what is at stake is not only the way in which we produce food and what for, but also how we dwell in this world, and what cultural diversity are we willing to preserve and respect.
The example of high fructose corn syrup allow us to see how things are related to each other in more profound and complex ways that what we usually are seeing. The production of this syrup has signified for Mexico a financial crisis regarding the sugar cane industry. The consumption of these products is also a health problem. Why are we eating everything so sweet? How and why have we changed so profoundly in the past century our relationship to the land, the planet, our bodies, our cultures, etc.? What does technology means seeing from this perspective?
How can art contribute to the discussions around the issue?
The nine pieces that we are presenting are dealing with many of the topics afore mentioned. BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico/ It will be ashes, but will make sense (slighty toxic). Is an experiment to detect contamination of transgenic corn in seeds in Mexican soil. We test the resistance to the herbicide glyphosate or Roundup produced by Monsanto.
BIOS Ex machinA: Polinización cruzada/Cross-pollination is a video documental that presents interviews to different actors in the current debate regarding transgenic corn in Mexico. It exhibits the capacity of the discourse to say true or to lie.
BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro. Experiments in situ to teach the reaches and limites of DIY biology.
Arcángel Constantini and Marcela Armas working with BIOS Ex machinA: Milpa polímera/Polymer milpa. Is a robot-3D printer that prints PLA in form of
Lena Ortega's La dulce vida/La dolce vita deals with the problem of high fructose corn syrup, the way in which families are fed nowadays, and the transformation from the rural world to the cities.
Alfadir Luna's Containers reflects about the problem of transforming corn into a commodity that is being transported in containers along with fuel, concrete, steel, etc.
Collective MAMAZ. Códice del maíz exhibits textiles that tell the story of what corn represents to local women in Oaxaca and in other places of Mexico.
Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab: Installation that senses the respiration (production of CO2) of corn plants and engraves a copper disc with this data.
Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz: Zea mays. Installation that reflects on how the corn plants are altered by the presence of humans.
I read in an online article that visitors will be able to work with scientists to determine whether a corn is transgenic or not. Could you tell us more about the setting and the participation of the public?
There are two possibilities for actual interaction of the public with the exhibition. The day of the inauguration we set a lab of DIY biology. We wanted to show to the public how to extract a DNA molecule out of a corn seed. Also, we wanted to show how to do a process of electrophoresis and of replicating DNA with a PCR. For this we used DNA from E. coli.
The exhibition seems to feature works in which artists have collaborated with scientists and engineers. Was this art/science collaboration one of the main thread of the curatorial process? How did you select the artworks that participate to the exhibition?
This exhibition has an important antecedent in a previous one, Sin origen/Sin semilla (Without origin/Seedless) that we presented in 2012-2013 in the museums MUCA Roma and MUAC at UNAM in Mexico City.
We have been working with scientists, engineers, artists, scholars, students, editors, designers, etc. We strongly believe that the interdisciplinary work is the way to approach complex issues, because it permits a wide perspective that can relate different layers. This is how we have been working on the issue of corn, and so far we have very good results.
All images courtesy of Arte+Ciencia.
As promised about 100 years ago (see: FIELDS, positive visions for the future), here's another post about Fields - patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations, an exhibition featuring works by artists who adopt an engaged, critical and active role in society.
This time, i'd like to focus particularly an installation which explores the life of a very common, yet mysterious, snail that travels around north west Europe. Possibly on the feet of ducks which i find most romantic.
This Wandering Snail is the radix balthica. The reason why we should all get a bit more excited about those little creatures is that they can survive in extreme and varied environmental conditions and constitute thus an excellent model for determining the traits which species might possess that could be beneficial for survival under altered environmental conditions, such as climate warming and increased saline intrusion into freshwaters.
The installation is an improvised rigging of laboratory vessels and technology developed with support from laboratory technicians skilled in researching and constructing various laboratory setups. The application of data (lab and field) has been developed through the work - investigating the control of lighting, sonification and physical vibration of elements in the installation. One aspect of the data explored is the connection of the name "Radix balthica", the snail, and "Radix Sort" a computer science based sorting algorithm. We are interested in the interplay between a snail (a messy biological entity under scientific observation and the subject of experimentation) and an algorithm (dating back to 1887 and the development of tabulating machines) that sorts and orders data sets..
Clearly, this required a few questions to Radix:
Why did you decide to work with the Radix balthica? What makes it more interesting than other types of snails?
From the scientific perspective Radix balthica is a species of aquatic snail that exhibits a high degree of plasticity - i.e. its shell form, pigmentation, physiology and development are all known to change in response to environmental conditions. This plasticity is thought to be the reason that it is widespread, occupying a range of different habitats in Northwest Europe, from small temporary ponds to large rivers and lakes and the Baltic Sea. The fact that this species has such a high level of tolerance and exhibits a lot of variation in its development, physiology and form makes it an excellent model species for studying questions to do with evolution - as variation is seen as the 'raw material' on which natural selection can act. Moreover, it will also give clues as to the way that freshwater organisms might respond to climate change, i.e. increased temperatures and saline intrusion into fresh waters through sea level rise.
(Radix balthica embryo image)
Research into the evolutionary ecology of this species at Plymouth has focused in on its developmental biology. Because it has transparent embryos its development can be observed easily in the laboratory and it also reproduces readily in the laboratory, allowing studies of inheritance. Most recently, there have been advances in the generation of 'new generation' genomic resources for this species that will allow the investigation of how genetic and environmental factors interact in its evolution and ecology.
From the art perspective our interest in Radix balthica has grown over a three year collaboration with Simon Rundle (freshwater ecologist) and involvement in his research. We are intrigued by how a tiny grey snail that is easily overlooked and seemingly insignificant, has come to play an important role as a marker of climate change. We are interested in our human relationship to this creature.
We were drawn to the idea that this species had been named the 'wandering snail', a name that alludes to its widespread distribution but could also be seen to relate to the ambiguity associated with its scientific names, which have shown numerous changes since its original naming by the father of classification Linnaeus. This aspect of the snail's biology were included in the work through the text from Linnaeus's journey to the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea in 1741, on which he collected the type specimen of Radix balthica. We felt that working with the snail in the context of the Fields exhibition in Riga would be very appropriate in relation to location and migration as well as transdisciplinary research brought into the public domain.
Could you explain the installation? I actually couldn't see the snails when i was in the gallery, i guess they were hiding.
There are two main strands to the work that draw on the idea of wandering. The first relates to the tolerance of the species. There are three 'replicate' jars containing snails and pond weed in water of three salinities from three locations where Radix balthica can be found: i) rivers near Plymouth - the place where the snails in the exhibition were collected from; ii) the Baltic Sea at Riga; and iii) further south in the Baltic Sea, where the salinity is higher. A further, single jar sits on the shelf above each of the three replicates for each treatment. This jar contains water of the same salinity as the corresponding three jars. This jar 'controls' the light intensity in the corresponding jars by converting salinity sensor readings into values for LEDs. This form of control reinterprets the common use of the term of 'control' in scientific experiments - replacing the idea of a 'reference' treatment against which experimental responses can be gauged with a more literal interpretation of control.
The second strand of the work draws on the ambiguity of the naming of the species since Linnaeus. We provide three readings of Linnaeus's original text describing his journey to Gotland on which he collected the type specimen of Radix balthica - the original text and in two versions sorted by the Radix algorithm.
When it comes to perceiving them they are the humble snail - an often overlooked species, difficult to see and with the work we invite you to spend time looking and watching.
But i saw glass containers, wires, plants. What are they? What is their purpose? How do they work together?
The glass containers are setup in three groups representing Plymouth, Baltic and Riga. Each set has three jars with water, plant, snails and a measured salinity inside that are lit from above using white LED light. The fourth jar in each set has the same measured salinity as the three jars below it and a salinity sensor. The salinity sensor in each group is measured using Arduino to control the intensity of the LEDs. The code also introduces the changes in the system over time - a six-hour fluctuation in line with tidal movements that would alter the amount of salinity present in the water. The wiring shows the mapping of these connections throughout the system and also includes the surface transducer that is placed on the top shelf from which the audio plays out across the architecture of the installation.
The plant inside the jars is Canadian Pond Weed (Elodea canadensis) that is part of the small ecosystem where the snails feed off the algae that grows on the plant - sustaining both the snails and the plant.
During the course of the exhibition, you are monitoring the way the snails respond to gallery conditions, light, salinity and atmosphere. What have you discovered so far?
Such a long exhibition provides challenges to keeping the snails healthy and alive especially at a distance: we don't quite know how they will fare and so - in this sense - it is a real experiment, taking lab snails back into the field which is, in this instance, a public art field. We have set up some test conditions and are monitoring the liveliness of the creatures through observation by colleagues. In mid June Professor Richard Thompson (a member of Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre, Plymouth) visited the gallery and re-photographed the snails using Simon's original viewpoint. One of us will go across to Riga to repeat this process in a couple of weeks.
Why do you want to monitor the response of the snails to their long sojourn in the gallery?
At the outset of the project we wanted to monitor the fate of the snails for a couple of reasons.
We wanted to know how the snails would respond to an art environment, and how their fate might shape in accord with our artistic intent.
Beyond this we envisaged that the act of 'monitoring' might act as a strategy around the instability of the gaze (moving between aesthetic/scientific) in relation to a gallery context. We worked with the idea that scientific visualisations are premised on a relational positions of power between those who are scientifically educated and those who are not. We wanted to extend an invitation to the gallery viewer to participate in (but not be educated by) the scientific gaze .
We have set up what appears to be a scientific experiment in a gallery. The approach was to use a strategy of mimicry where the art exhibition context is deployed as a means to identify fissures within an experimental system that can then be opened to further reflective artistic investigation.
Note: A reading of the work of Luce Irigaray (1985) that gives emphasis to the development of mimicry as an anti-essentialist strategy underpins how we have approached Wandering Snail - a work that could be conceptualised as a kind of "essence of an experiment" and used the specific context of the gallery as a mechanism that could potentially reveal aspects that may be repressed in another context - the laboratory. "Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called itself that is left behind" (Lacan, 1977)
The description of the work also mentions the Radix Sort algorithm. What kind of role does this algorithm play in the installation?
Radix Sort is a sorting algorithm that is a playful mediation between the human and the snail. The initial connection came through the name 'Radix' as the root or base in computing and in the naming of a species and this connection developed further after researching the way Radix Sort uses two categories to sort data: Least Significant Digit (LSD) and Most Significant Digit (MSD). The use of the LSD method brings up ideas around noise in information that, which parallels other areas of research within the Radix group.
The algorithm is used within the work to play with the text and form a sonic output that is both a reading of sorted text (lexicographically) and a further manipulation of the audio file of that reading. Two readings of the text about Linnaeus' journey to Gotland, on which he discovered the species were recorded - one is a straight recording and another made after the algorithm has sorted the text alphabetically. The audio files are also sorted using Radix Sort by frequency and amplitude and the results are then mixed with the readings and played out across the architecture of the installation shelving using a surface transducer.
You work together under the name of radix research group at the University of Plymouth. What brought you together? Is there a website that gathers all the works you've done together?
A shared interest in interdisciplinary art/science research through practice brought us together. Three of us - Deborah, Simon and David - are academics at Plymouth University and we have worked together on precedent projects involving the snail since 2011 when Deborah became artist in residence with MBERC (Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre) at Plymouth and created a collaborative work called Transpositions with Simon. David then worked with both on a second project, an immersive sound installation based on the snail embryo, called ATRIA. Bronac Ferran is a writer and curator who we invited to collaborate with us to build new audiences for the work. Radix as a shared art organism is relatively new. We're building a website and will hopefully do some publishing in future as well as more exhibitions based on the humble snail.
Website (under construction) about Radix.
Do check out Wandering Snail at the Fields exhibition, produced by RIXC and curated by Raitis Smits, Rasa Smite and Armin Medosch. The show remains open at Arsenals Exhibition Hall of the Latvian National Arts Museum (LNAM) in Riga until August 3, 2014.
Previously: FIELDS, positive visions for the future.
I already mentioned the festival Age of Wonder last week in my notes from Nick Bostrom's talk about (human and artificial) Super Intelligence. The festival attempted to reflect on the challenging but ultimately exciting techno-mediated times we are living with a series of performances, keynotes and art installations. BioArt Laboratories illustrated the essence of the festival with Tree Antenna, an installation and workshop that engaged with alternative wireless communication, ecology, DIY culture and historical knowledge.
The Eindhoven-based multidisciplinary art&design group recreated an early 20th Century experiment in which live trees are used as antennas for radio communication.
General George Owen Squier, the Chief Signal Officer at the U.S. army not only coined the word "muzak", in 1904 he also invented in 1904 a system that used living vegetable organisms such as trees to make radio contact across the Atlantic. The invention never really took off as the advent of more sophisticated means of communication made tree communication quickly look anachronistic.
Tree communication was briefly back in favour during the Vietnam War when U.S. troupes found themselves in the jungle and in need of a reliable and easy to transport system of communication but after that, only a few groups of hobbyists used tree antennas for wireless communication.
During the last afternoon of Age of Wonder, BioArt Laboratories invited members of the public of all ages and background to join them and bring back tree antennas to our attention. Participants of the workshop could craft simple and affordable devices that would allow anyone to use the tree in their backyard as a radio receiver (it is also possible to broadcast from your tree but the technology is slightly more expensive and it requires permits.)
Squier drove a nail into the tree, hung a wire, and connected it to the receiver. The BioArt Laboratory team used flexible metal spring that wrapped around the trunk as planting a nail into the tree would have damaged it. Their system definitely works as the team managed to communicate with amateurs radios from countries as distant as Italy and Ukraine.
Right now there are only a few amateurs using tree and other high plants for wireless communication but the BioArt Laboratory's objective is to spread the word about this simple and affordable technology and gradually build up a world-wide forest of antennas.
Obviously, in this experiment the tree is part and parcel of the functionality of the antenna. We're thus not speaking of questionable antennas disguised as tree.