For the past ten years, Brandon Ballengée's work has been the observation of amphibian declines and deformities.
I find his work deeply moving for many reasons. One of them has to do with the way he communicates his work. He produces not only amazingly beautiful images of these deformed amphibians but also takes his discourse out of the white walls of art galleries (where aonly a certain category of people will ever get to see them) by taking people to field trips and let them experience first hand what his happening in their own backyards.
The Arts Catalyst has just released a video that documents the project to date:
Consolation prize for everyone who missed the sk-interface conference. The videos of the talks -which took place at FACT in Liverpool on February 8 & 9 as part of the sk-interfaces exhibition - have been made available online. Yeah!
I'm quoting curator Jens Hauser:
This international conference examined the aesthetic, philosophical and biomedical issues raised in the exhibition. Specialists from a wide range of disciplines and artists of international renown discussed past and future roles of skin, shifts in the concept of interfaces, the emergence of 'biofacts' in philosophy, as well as the most contemporary practices of artists using new technologies, biomedia and their own bodies.
Make your way to the FACT archive.
Videos are encoded in H.264 format - you need a recent Flash player.
Dear friends and readers living in New York, i'm going to hit your turf soon for a panel rhizome has kindly asked me to set up at the New Museum in Manhattan. If you know me a tiny bit you might have guessed that my first thought was for biotech art. I wasn't sure my proposal would be accepted as the topic is far less popular than interactive screens in public spaces or "sustainable" gadgetry. It's a bit more risky as well. But they said yes and i'd love to meet you on Friday 14, at the New Museum theater, 235 Bowery (map).
The Media Art in the Age of Transgenics, Cloning, and Genomics panel is scheduled at 7,30 pm. There will be the cream of biotech art: Caitlin Berrigan, Adam Zaretsky, Brandon Ballengee, and Kathy High.
Image on top left by Brandon Ballengee: Cleared and Stained Multi-limbed Pacific Tree frog, Aptos, California. Digital imaging courtesy The Institute for Electronic Arts, School of Art and Design NYSCC at Alfred University, Alfred, New York.
Last week i flew to one of my favourite cities, Liverpool, to visit the Sk-interfaces exhibition at the FACT art center. The show, curated by Jens Hauser, explores, materially and metaphorically, the concept of skin as a technological interface.
A controversial new exhibition on display in Liverpool showcases real skin tissue in sculptures wrote the BBC news website. Yet every single person i spoke with during the 2 days i spent in the city didn't seem to find the show controversial. Interesting, surprising, fascinating, challenging, thought-provoking, worth bringing my mum, etc. That's what i heard but no one i talked to seemed overly shocked nor disturbed.
There is material to cause quite a stir in sk-interfaces but Liverpudlians seemed to be more concerned by the issues brought to light by the artists than by the potentially seditious or "freaky" character of the works on show.
I'll start the blog visit of this multi-disciplinary exhibition by walking to the second floor of FACT.
Immolation is a video installation concerned with the subject of the use of incendiary weapons on civilians after the Geneva Convention and the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons of 1980. The USA have refused to sign the convention and they make regular use of firebombs in the Middle East. Not because these bombs are the most efficient (they are not), but because they act as moral crushers, tapping on people's visceral fear of being burned alive.
This video chronicles the major war crimes of the United States involving these weapons on a ( macro) landscape level, and contrasts it with the damage done to the body on the (micro) cellular level.
To accomplish this task, the Critical Art Ensemble (a collective of tactical media practitioners who explore the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism) grew human tissue at SymbioticA last year, and using high-end microscopy shot the micro footage of skin cells dying by either exploding or imploding. In parallel, CAE shows film footage of present and past wars that have used immolation against civilian targets as a strategic choice for the sole purpose of terrorizing entire populations.
The result is a video where war crime are shown at both the micro and macro level but which skips the human level. Yet you still manage to view your own body in the narrative. The video is made even more unsettling by the absence of sound, it's just silence and destruction.
The goal is to provide a different way of imaging, viewing, and interpreting the human costs of these war crimes, in contrast to the barrage of media imagery to which we have become so desensitised. The video portrays what CAE calls an "ecology of crime."
CAE felt that as long as warfare would be at the center of the Bush agenda, they had to come up with new connections and find venues to show their work (since the arrest of Steve Kurtz some US administrations are feeling the pressure).
Right next to Immolation, is Truth Serum, a work that responds to the lawsuit against Steve Kurtz and their persecution of Critical Art Ensemble in the USA, which marks an ever-increasing creep of the security state into the nervous system of culture.
For Truth Serum, The Office of Experiments, initiated by Neal White, follows research on serums used historically by official authorities in interrogation processes as a means to obtain information without using torture. The effects of truth drugs were first examined in the 1920's, and heavily used by the CIA during the Cold War. The present artwork echoes the debate around art's freedom in the fear and increasing security regime that has emerged after 9/11, while drawing on the cultural history of so-called truth drugs and recent discussions about their use in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
The use of truth serums is actually illegal but after 9/11 there have been talks (mostly in the press) of using the method again during interrogations by the FBI and the CIA, even though truth serums are more an art than a science.
The installation at FACT combines a space concealed behind a white door and a series of video works that reflect on the aesthetics of terrorist messages, using a dark clown as an anonymous spokesman who reflects on the possibility of carrying out mass self-experimentation with truth drugs as a form of self-defence.
On 29 March 2008, volunteers will be able to participate to the performative part of the Truth Serum installation in support of freedom from artistic censorship.
In a central (and still secret) Liverpool location, participants will willingly submit themselves to a short psychological experiment based on substantiating Truth lasting around 10 minutes. The aim is to probe an atmosphere of paranoia spreading since 9/11.
sk-interfaces is on view until March 30 and launches FACT's Human Futures programme which includes 3 sections - My Body (SK-Interfaces), My Mind and My World, each one hosting a major exhibition, conference and research focus. You can follow its development through Human Futures blog.
Antony Hall's projects explore the way we interface with technology, and how our interactions with it influence us creatively and socially. Often collaborating with scientists and technologists, Hall is currently focusing his talent on the investigation of biological and physical phenomenon. Some of his recent experiments involve communication with an electric fish, the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears and training Planarian worms.
He gained fame in the media and media art festivals with his electro-acoustic sound art devices and performances. Together with Simon Blackmore and more recently Steve Symons, Hall is a founding member of the Owl Project, a group which combines woodwork with electronics to create performances, musical instruments (iLog , and Log1k) and other physical computing projects.
Let's start with one of your most popular projects: the iLog. How did you get the idea of making it?
The iLog was created as collaborative project with Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons, we are the Owl Project. We developed the Log1K in 2001 as a performance tool to attempt rival the laptop in electronic music, shortly after this apple started pushing the iPod and we had to make a response, something which related more to the trend for portable, mobile hand held technologies. We wanted our devices to be a synthesis of craft and technology, as well as functional instruments. The Log1ks were getting increasingly heavy, among other things they used nearly 30 AA batteries, short circuits and fires, and blown-out speakers were becoming common place. iLog 01 came out in 2003. After we started collaborating with Steve Symons, we reinvented the electronics inside the iLog and started pushing the whole project to a new level; the M-Log is out later this year.
There's now a series of iLog models. Why do you think people buy the iLog? Mainly as a beautiful and quirky piece of art which they would not use too much fearing that it might be damaged (although you provide technical support.)? Or have you found that people use it extensively as any other kind of musical device? Were you expecting your project to have so much success?
I suppose people want the iLog for its quirkiness, something as an alternative to the mass produced items. We had no idea that it would become so popular - people blogged it like mad at the start and like a Chinese whisper it suddenly became what people wanted it to be; typically some kind of alternative to the ipod - But in reality its something quite different. It is intended to be an instrument for performance.
Our problem is that although there is demand; making them is still very difficult, and time consuming, so our focus is making them better rather than faster. At the moment we are looking at lending these to artists and working in collaboration to develop the iLog further. When we launched them for sale in London at DWB it was a real learning curve. Simple things like which way up it should be held, were completely un-obvious! We had to create extensive instructions regarding use, as well as repair and maintenance. The 24 hour support is most necessary! Its important that its more hands on than your average mass produced plastic device.
The iLog is something people can use, rather than living all its life in the art gallery. The new series, *M-Log, launching this year, looks like an iLog, and is a USB connective interface. So there is scope for programming your own sensor based instrument, which you can use with your own customized patch. The iLog is more of a stand alone sound generator. We are planning an event in Manchester during Futuresonic where other performers (including Leafcutter John) will be using the iLogs & M-Logs. *The M in M-Log stands for 'muio' as in "muio interface", the chip based interface inside which Steve's invention in his words "The muio interface is a modular system for sensing and controlling the Real World".
The wood is quite resilient and very repairable if damaged.
I love The Sound Lathe, a performance which explores the sonic properties of wood. Do you have any video of it?
There is some video here:
It does look like a very physical performance. Did you have to master new skills in order to be able to do these performances? How does each performance go? Are they all different from each other? Does working with wood creates situations and results you wouldn't have expected?
Yes its been really interesting - my self and Simon ended up sleeping in a kind of bivouac deep in the forrest as part or the "R&D" for the project, learning the skills of traditional "green woodwork", (electricity free) with Mike Abbott, master crafts-person. Mike invented a competition for Bodgers (the name for people who use the 'pole Lathe') called 'Log to Leg' (as in chair leg) so this is the new format for our performance - I think the record is 9 mins; transforming a bit of tree stump, into two perfect chair legs! It takes us a couple hours, but then our lathe is connected to copious amounts of sensor interface technologies. Quite a distraction, if like for our last performance at Lovebytes, it rained torrentially for the whole thing. In the documentation you will see a tarpaulin underneath that are 3 laptops and Simon.
I think for all of us it's a welcome change from sitting behind a screen the whole time - these physical processes are a great compliment to programming and electronics; and they still require a similar kind of focus and discipline. It is quite exhausting, you need a lot a focus to keep the beat in time as well as make a good carving, in this way it becomes quite mediative. Sharpening the chisels and preparing the timber are all equally demanding skills to learn.
Can you tell us something about the wooden objects produced during the performances? Which kind of objects are there? And what do you do with them once the performance is over?
We have a box full of various objects; ranging in description from 'chair leg' to 'fire wood', or specialist 'rolling pin'. Occasionally we have a look inside & discuss what we should do with them. We did make a chair with Mike about the only truly useful thing we ever made. The latest idea is to make some kind of flat pack, or player. Watch this space. You can see what we decide to do with them at The Piemonte Share Festival, 11 - 16 March 2008.
You are also interested in bio-digital medicine. That sounds very different from a project like iLog. Can you explain us what it is and how you started to be interested in this field?
Well this is my own personal project, although I have always working with biology or technological experimentation in some way; with ENKi I decide to humanize what I do. This was a decision to move into medicine and treatment technologies. Really its the same things that we work with in the owl project; looking at how technology is consumed and sold. The notion of bio-digital medicine is just one example in hundreds, of how science, or even the suggestion of science is used, and misused to sell ideas. Faceless corporations feed on our anxieties, our basic need to feel contentment or feel complete. I find it interesting that, just as some people turn to religion, others will look to technology or science to provide answers and solutions.
ENKI uses the bioelectric information from an Electric Fish to trigger human Brain-wave Entrainment. It generates sound and light pulses to induce a state of relaxation similar to the way traditional relaxation systems work, but the electric communication signal comes from an electric fish rather than a chip.
Did you test the system on other people? How do they react?
So far we have tested it on about 40 volunteers,most of them members of the public who had no prior knowledge of the project. We did this in the context of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry; people enjoy the experience generally. I was surprised at the range of people who were up for it!
By this point I had started working with Greg Byatt as a collaborator. He has experience of using this kind of technology and administering similar treatments professionally. Greg has equipment which can monitor your physiological state and a brain-wave visualiser (EEG); we were trying to measure results this way. We only really came to one solid conclusion. We had to do more tests.
Isn't the idea of putting one's "brain-wave entertainment" into the fins of an animal scary? Do you feel that people would trust any other electronic device more than a fish or any other type of animal?
That is a good question. It's an exciting notion this whole idea of "wet-wear" interfacing - but not something that should be taken lightly. I don't like to be on my own if i am doing a test run, and yes I find it very unnerving. I never quite got used to the idea of connecting strangers up to electrodes and the fish. I also worry about the fish. The fish needs to be content and 'happy' for this to work.
In my opinion that most of these commercial devices are made by various humans all of whom have different intentions and issues, namely cost efficiency; and so effectively using quite crude means; cheap microchips. The Black Ghost knife fish is the result of millions of years of evolutionary refinement; but you could still say the same of micro chips.
Is that project completely developed or is it still a work in progress?
It's in progress. I started working with "electrogenic" fish in 2005; ENKI technology was the title I gave it in 2006 when I was in residence at ENSAD in Paris. This was the point I realized I could create a treatment technology that might actually be functional. I had a bit of pressure to actually finish something and so launched the basic concept of ENKI technology. The funny thing was that reflecting on it now - that just marked a new beginning. (It took a year just to convince the director of Pepiniere that it was in fact a real project and not some conjecture in science fiction!). Coming to think of it I have never really finished anything, I am much more excited by the notion of continued experimentation. I don't want to finish discovering. The more I work on ENKI - the more things there are to do and try, it keeps opening up. There are always more questions.
What is there left to achieve? And how much have you learned about cross-species communication?
There is still a lot to achieve. The 'treatment' side is just one layer of the onion. I started the project with the aim of communicating with the fish, generating an electrical signal and transmitting this in the fish in the tank, to the fish. Then I watch the the fish, looking for behavioral 'interactions' with the electrodes - generally if there is an electrical (connective) change to the electrodes, the fish is aware of this and investigates the electrode by swimming near it and around it (motor-probing responses). I also listening for a 'chirp' response. The 'chirp' response is a subtle modulation of the Electric signal, a specific fluctuation in the wave. The 'chirp' is used during like species interaction and communication. This is closer to the idea of language we have.
Experimentally there are factors which make this difficult to measure - The fish learns to associate the vibrations created by me entering the studio & opening the tank with a food reward. So any approach to the tank needs to be made silently, and the fish needs to be 'conditioned' to learn this over a long time. As the project progressed I became more interested in communication as something closer to an idea of commune. For the fish I see the communication signal they make more as a deep expression of self; a projected physical extension of the fish body, rather than 'language' in an anthropological sense. This communication is happening at a more primal level. In terms of the ENKi project I am thinking about this as a biological, or physiological connection between living organisms.
I recently discovered that I might be having a problem with what is known as 'superstitious' behavior in the fish; if I was a scientist in the academic sense, this would be a serous flaw in the project; something to fix, but for me it was a fantastic turn, giving the project a new angle all together. Its now becoming an experiment into animal Psychology, not just electro physiology. I don't want to say too much about this next phase but next year the project will look quite different.
You recently developed the Opto-acoustic modulator and used it for an interactive work at FACT and Liverpool John Moores University for the National Science and Engineering Week. Can you give us more details about this interactive piece? How does it work? What were you trying to achieve with this project?
The commission was to create and interactive art work that used something other than keyborad or mouse. I was determined not to use a video camera either. The the Opto-acoustic modulator basically turns sound-waves into light-waves. It can take 10 audio channels and convert these into "AM" transmissions through 10 Light Emitting Diode arrays. I am fascinated by the notion of 'Amplitude Modulation' sending data using light waves. The idea was to use 'Hyalite' salt crystals, to broadcast sound through their 'ionizing' ambient glow. You interact with the light and can detect the data as sound using wearable sensors. Additionally, using Steve's 'muio' interface again, 8 light sensors detect movement around the crystals using a lens and light sensor (based on the idea a simple biological 'camera eye') these feed into MAX MSP controlling a soundscape.
I read on your statement page that you are currently "working on new experiments relating to the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears (Tardigrades; Fresh water extremophiles) and training Planarian worms. " Could you already tell us a few words about these experiments?
I have been researching the work of William Cross for quite a while, and finally decided that I needed to recreate his experiments (with a few modifications) It's quite interesting trying to work out what he did - the only way to know is to recreate it. In 1837, he found these creatures "Acari electors" as he called them infesting an experiment, he believed that these things "spontaneously generated" within his experiment, several eminent scientists of the time recreated the experiment with the same results! My experiment is basically a recreation of this experiment, augmented with a little more technology - with the aim of capturing this phenomena of electrochemical abiogenesis. The only problem is the experiment has to run for many months.
I am interested in all sorts fresh water microscopic life; its a great 19h century tradition. With a decent microscope, you can take any roadside moss cluster and explore the interstitial oceans of liquids trapped between damp moss filaments. Here you might be lucky enough to find a Moss Bear ( "Tardigrade" ) an obscure form of extremophile that lives in moss. Believe it or not, it really does look like a bear! This in its self was a reason for laboring days over a microscope just to see if it was real! They don't fit into the zoological classification system, and have been given a phylum of their own. It is believed it is able to survive space travel, and at this moment a small space capsule orbits the earth containing some "Tardinauts" (its hard to compete with that) I simply enjoy looking for them. I like to go looking for moss growing in all kinds of areas, from urban waste lands, to the Peak District. "Tardigrades" are able to survive about 120 years in a dehydrated state; I was sifting through very old moss samples from Manchester Museum to see if I could reanimate 100 year old dehydrated Moss Bears. apparently it is possible. I had a lot more luck looking for the living ones. Unfortunately my one Planarian worm recently went missing in the tank. It is 8mm long, and I dont have the heart to keep it in a petri dish. I am not sure where it is.
Is there any artist or researcher whose work has been particularly inspiring for you?
I don't know where to start! Louis Bec for sure. I am really into what SymbioticA have been doing over the past few years, and what they are doing for the "Bio-art" movement. Otherwise, at the moment I am looking at the work of William Bebe. To be honest - I have been trying to read a lot more science fiction lately, particularly 19th century science fiction, and science writing. Often the science fiction tells you a lot about the popular understanding of science at the time. More importantly, its a good antidote ploughing through contemporary research papers.
Related: El Niuton has a slideshow dedicated to the work of Simon Blackmore.
It all started when i almost fell on my knees in front of an installation by Michel Blazy. The first time i saw his work was at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The installation Post Patman stank, rot, crumbled and formed mushrooms, attracted insects and birds but i love it.
The work on show at Artissima, Le tombeau du poulet aux quatre cuisses (The grave of the four-legged chicken), is a skeleton laying on a bed of earth and surrounded by mushroom. The skeleton looks indeed like the one of a chicken, a giant chicken and as it is made of dog biscuits (made themselves from animal products) will be slowly desintegrating over time.
The PAV was also exhibiting one of Jun Takita's sculpture Jusqu'aux recoins du monde, the sculpture of a brain recovered with bioluminescent algae. For years, the Paris-based artist has been interested in bioluminescence.
According to traditional classification, photosynthesizing organisms
It is easy to perceive a figure in the landscape within 10° of one's line of sight (the size of the visual field of a fist held out at arm's length). For example, constellations are based on the principle that one reads stars at a distance of up to about 11° from one another as part of a group. Even when we look at the sky, the human hand is the unit of reference for measuring an image. If an object exceeds this 10° visual field, we have to move our eyes in order to perceive it in its entirety. Vision is then constructed by the accretion of several images memorized by the brain. In 1998, the artist started to work on a garden project based on this phenomenon.
The elevated garden is to be situated on top of a building in Tokyo. As Tokyo is a very polluted city, it is not unusual to see gardens being grown on the top buildings by inhabitants in order to cool down a bit the temperature of the city.
The central element of Takita's own garden is a mineral sculpture composed of three walls forming a cave and a bush pruned into a hemisphere. The inside of the cave is to be covered with a bioluminescent moss produced with genetic engineering technology. The moss will emit light via photosynthesis. The visitor is led to a viewpoint along the axis of the sculpture, where the bush is framed by the cave. The distance from this point to the bush will permit the eye to perceive the whole installation at once.
The visitor is invited to discover a visual experience made possible through genetic engineering. During the day, the light of the sun is much stronger than the one emitted through bioluminescence, therefore the form of the bush will be lit by the sun, and its shape will serve to distinguish it from a dark background. After sunset the opposite happens: the bioluminescent background will be broken up by the silhouette of the bush, forming a negative figure (via Takita's paper and the notes i took during the artist's presentation during the round table, titled Places and creative processes of the living arts, and organized by the Parco d'Arte Vivente at artissima).
Last week i went to the temporary headquarters of the PAV to check out their exhibition Living Materials. It closed yesterday but will be traveling to Austria. I do not have the details about that second show yet. But when i do, i'll let you know because Living Materials is a very charming exhibition.
Every work presented involves the public in a timed process cadenced by the cyclic rhythm of biological and ecological phenomena. Life and death are simultaneously present and aesthetically represented in the continuum of procedural works which ask us about the man-nature relationship in the age of biotechnology.
The works on show include Le Poulet and photos of Jun Takita's work but also:
An array of hundreds of lemons are pierced with small metal sheets, they are in fact Volta batteries supplied with citrus energy which powers tiny Leds, one every 4 lemons. Originally the lemons looked like the ones you can see on the image above but when i visited the PAV, the lemons were a yummy green as you can see on the image on the right. I actually liked that a lot, in yellow, they were too perfect, too plastic looking, but covered with decay they were more living than ever.
The artist writes: I imagined that the lemons during their "work" of withering and decomposing would give back the sun stored by the tree in his fruits during its productive phase in form of small flares.
I think it's fascinating that a fruit of nature through an electronic device can palpitate for some days. It seems the proof to me of our dependence on the environment, of our tight and deep bond to nature.
The project proposes a reflection on the energetic resources of our planet and re-explores one of the artist's theme of predilection: time. Six months of ripening, several days of life for the work and very short flashes of light, like snapshots of the passing by of time.
The last work on show is Food Island, by Andrea Caretto & Raffaella Spagna. The complex water system feeds several interconnected little islands containing various natural elements: stones, plants or animals.
A pump dipped in a water container sends water which reaches each island through transparent tubes. The water produced through various natural mechanism or which is not needed by the island is then collected and sent back to the main water container. the whole installation constitutes a kind of hypertextual narration which explains phenomena of growth and transformation of the material, from inorganic to organic and vice-versa.