I'm now spending a week in a super boring city. That's the best way i found to catch up with blogging, writing articles for paper mags and working on my own projects.
First long overdue post is about a fantastic guy whose work i've been admiring for some time. He's called Adam Zaretsky and we met in Edinburgh where New Media Scotland had invited us to discuss the Future Body at the Poker Club.
Zaretsky is a teacher and practitioner of VivoArts, an emerging and politically charged field that brings together art and biology. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world and he is currently teaching at the University of Leiden (NL).
His Vivoarts: Biology and Art Studio course explores five areas where art meets biology (Ecology and EcoArt, Gastronomy and Edible Art, Biology and Bio-Art, Ethology and Art for Non-humans, Physiology and Body Art) and discusses cultural issues such as gene patenting, population diversity (he imagines that we could one day create jellyfish people who'd be floating around the city), new reproductive technologies, nature/culture boundaries, etc. The ethics of living art production are debated and made more tangible and understandable by the use of living material/organisms into the class final projects.
A hands-on approach is crucial to him. Adam believes that without getting your hands "dirty" you can't fully assess the relationship between safety, aesthetics and responsibility implicit in this field. What happens inside a lab is not as squeaky clean as we'd imagine. For example:
The way animals have sex in laboratories is as follows: eggs are squeezed out of the female and put into a petri dish, then the scientist rubs male testicles against the eggs.
In one of his workshops, Zaretsky has students or participants "paint" with genetically modified bacteria (image on the right); in another, they can incorporate themselves into a work of living art. The idea is to let them see how they can insert their own fantasy and desires right into the genome.
Participants are asked to extract and isolate Hybrid DNA which is found in all living cells. Varieties of samples can be collected from food, pets, pests, human bodies, laboratories and free or not so free living portions of the outdoors. The DNA samples of living, growing, raw or recently alive materials are isolated --using products such as soap, contact lens solution, Woolite-- and put in a blender: vegetable, human, animal, fungus, mold, bacteria, dirty underwear or whatever is alive or uncooked.
In his Leyden class he recently had students create transgenic phaesant and quail embryos. Yes, he's allowed to do that because as he says:
In Europe, yeast has more rights than animal embryos!
The embryos cannot be allowed to live too long nor can they be inserted into a womb. But still, there's much to learn in the process, like following the development of the embryos and reflecting on the fact that they have no rights (Adam even labelled some eggs with names such as "sub-human", "non-being", "loss and lack", etc.) doesn't imply that they are not living and growing beings to which one can give an imprint. At the end of the process he has students choose the way they want their embryo to be killed.
I wish i'd have been fast enough to write down every single witty quote from Adam. Explaining how wild future developments might go he mentioned that
"Why should we make golden eggs when you can make prozac come out of a cow? Or have human sperm with opium? Men would then be able to charge a lot for blowjobs!"
Photos from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica.
Anna Dumitriu is the Director of the Institute of Unnecessary Research and an artist whose work is deeply grounded into scientific research. I met her a few weeks ago at the Mobile Music Workshop in Amsterdam where she was presenting Bio-Tracking, a mobile phone based exhibition using GPS and a software called Socialight which enabled the placement of virtual sticky notes around various locations in Brighton.
Anna sampled various locations in the city for bacteria and moulds, revealing this unseen world to us through digital micrographs. Luciana Haill, Ian Helliwell Ollie Glass and Juliet Kac created a series of sound works to accompany the images. Microbiologist John Paul wrote scientific text descriptions of the microbes.
Visitors could download the software and wander around the sites receiving SMS, sound files and images to their phones. Due to the nature of Socialight the exhibition is still live and can be viewed now.
I was so impressed by Anna's enthousiasm and the sense of poetry she brings to an invisible world which i would otherwise find as exciting as a citrus juicer that i asked her to give us more details about her work:
How did you get interested in bacteria?
I've always been fascinated with microscopic forms, I think from childhood, but about 12 years ago a key area of research for me was the notion of immortality, that led me to an interest in cell biology, looking at immortalised cell lines such as HeLa Cells and I was invited to do a short residency at St Georges Hospital in London in their Clinical Genetics lab, I became increasingly interested in the differences between our media generated notions about science and the deeper story we don't normally get to hear about. The world of normal flora microbiology is really astonishing, to me it's sublime, there are more bacteria on the end of your finger than there are people in the world, I can't really get my head around that.
Microbiologists seem to love my work because I am studying the things that they don't get to study. You don't become a microbiologist without the same fascination that I have for the microbial world but because of funding and other restrictions they aren't able to study the normal flora. Clinical Microbiology studies that 1% or so of bacteria that can make us ill, the ones I study are considered to be 'of no commercial or medical interest', it's the needle in a haystack thing, there might be something in that haystack worth looking scientifically at but you'd have to go through a huge amount of hay first, it won't produce the quick results or the scientific papers needed to secure funding.
Epistemologically it's an interesting issue, where do we draw the line about what is studied? Money draws that line. But art is judged in other ways by funders, a questioning of our epistemology can be an important issue, the aesthetics of the work, the way the public is engaged is important (in terms of Arts Council England who fund alot of my work), so I can be funded to look at this area as an artist. In terms of scientific support I've been working with Eastbourne District General Hospital (through Arts in Healthcare) and The Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton as well as a number of other collaborators and institutions. The use of digital media is also important to me (I'm looking at looking computer modelling of bacteria and artificial life technology) and I am currently Artist in Residence at The Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics at Sussex University, one of the leading Artificial Life research groups in the world, which is an amazing experience.
I should mention here that I am absolutely an artist, I don't consider myself a scientist, or a hybrid. My relationship to science is that I would rather not collaborate (actually I am not sure if that's entirely true), but what I mean is that I don't feel an artist is fully able to respond to scientific information without a proper knowledge of that subject. I am very hands on, I do all my own lab work (to me it's part of the making) and I am studying clinical microbiology as part of my (Fine Art) PhD, so rather than a superficial engagement with the concepts (a few chats with a scientist where an artist hears about some 'cool' ideas and goes about representing them) I'm basically trying to understand the issues and concepts from the inside and respond to them as an artist in the most informed way. There are equally valid arguements for remaining an outsider, I accept that, and interesting work is being made in that way but it's not how I want to go about it, not something that would achieve the results I am looking for.
I feel very strongly about engaging with the widest possible audience and use my skills to get these issues and concepts out to the public, I don't like the way that scientific language almost seems designed to be incomprehensible (or incommensurable), I believe anyone has the ability to understand anything if it is explained properly. Creating threads and networks of knowldege fascinates me, like bringing crocheters and scientists together to crochet a bed cover based on the light microscopy of the bacteria on my bed. It's a learning curve for everyone but the results, in terms of both the personal exchanges that take place and the resulting art object it's very worthwhile.
How much in general do you think that the science world can learn from the art world and vice-versa?
As far as I'm concerened the "claim to truth" that science has made since the Enlightenment is really now open to question. Notions of rational empiricism seem to be under attack as unachievable. The phenomenological relationship of the experimenter to the experiment is now becoming increasingly key. The ability of art to express multiple layers of meaning, from the analytical and the philosophical to the emotional makes it an ideal method to investigate knowledge within this new paradigm, acting, I believe, as a form of meta-knowledge.
More notes from my conversation with Antonio Cerveira Pinto, the curator of Bios 4. It's probably the first time that so many unstable art works are being shown for several months in a museum (as opposed to a few days in an art gallery during a festival) and, as Antonio notes, the experience has shown that there's a whole new relationship to be built between on the one hand, artists who use technology in their practice and on the other hand, museums which are usually wary of showing works that are not static and "quiet" like paintings are.
The existence of bio art, environmental art and in general new media art constitutes a challenge for museums. They have to be aware that art is evolving, and open up to new artistic forms. New expertise is needed to deal with machines and living things. Robots need to "rest", for example. Otherwise their electro-circuit dies. Museum curators and directors also have to accept that if you want to hide a computer in a sleek box just because it is "ugly", the container should be big enough to avoid any crash when the machine heats up.
Artists on the other hand, have to specify clearly how the museum has to manage and take care of the electronic, digital or living bits of their work when they are exhibited over a long period of time (as these pieces are usually shown in the context of a one-week festival). Another challenge for artists is to become experts in usability and design clear interfaces that tell visitors how to interact with their pieces.
The public too has to learn how to engage with these art pieces, adults in particular have spent decades being told "Don't touch!" "Don't go too close!", etc. Both museums and artists will have to take these challenges into account.
The first Biosphere is Gaia, the planet Earth.
Biosphere 2 was an artificial closed ecological system constructed in 1987/89 in Arizona. It was used to test how people could live and work in a closed biosphere, while carrying out scientific experiments. It explored the possible use of closed biospheres in space colonization, and also allowed the study and manipulation of a biosphere without harming Earth's.
BIOS is also a computer term that stands for Basic Input/Output System.
Bios 4 is the exhibition on bio and environmental art currently running in Sevilla and if you trust dear old aunt Régine, you should book a flight to Sevilla and visit the show because you're not going to see anything like that anytime soon.
Here's the blurb about the exhibition:
The launch of the Human Genome Project in 1990 -the identification of the 20.000-25.000 genes of human ADN- would have been difficult to realize in only 13 years without the power and speed of digital computers. That's also the moment when environmental and biological art started to emerge. Bios 4 is an exhibition and an information platform that showcases a selection of examples of these two important categories of art on the 21st century.
The close collaboration between artists, scientists and technology experts to develop new creative projects characterizes this recent area of investigation that brings the art closer to knowledge. That's what the curator of the exhibition, Antonio Cerveira Pinto, calls "cognitive art." Cognitive Art emerges when artists have to build up specific scientific or technological set of skills and knowledge in order to use them in their own artistic process. The use of this new knowledge and cognition symbolises a "post-contemporary" culture. The artists' work is not always perfect in terms of form, what matters is the questions that arise from it.
The raw material of artistic expression of biotechnological art or bioart, which has some roots in the Body Art of the 1960-70, is life itself or its components (genes, organs, organisms, tissues), or the virtual living matter, digital stimulation of ADN, of proteins, and of course it can also be the result of the intersection of those two realities. A philosophical and ethical debate has recently sparkled from the interest for the new potential for manipulating the living. Bioart takes part into the discussion with works that often reflect an ironic metaphorical exercise or a clearly critical one.
For the art of nature/ecologiy/environment or of sustainability, which antecedents can be traced to the Land Art of the '70s, the medium of artistic creation is the natural sphere in all its extensions and complexities. The idea of the close connectivity between all the organisms that represent terrestrial life for billions of years inspire the dynamic definition of this new artistic field. Issues of pollution, the exhaustion of fossil fuels of energy sources and global warming are turning into the main areas of concern of the environmental artists of this new century.
Antonio Cerveira Pinto points out that the art arising from post-contemporary complexity does not focus on the forms spawned by technology but focuses on the worlds that are possible for a humanity surrounded by technology while threatened by energy exhaustion and ecological imbalances. The works selected in Bios 4 bear witness to a way of making art that embodies both scientific curiosity and the poetical formulation of a new type of knowledge.
Image on top left corner is Machinic Diatoms by Ken Rinaldo. The 3D irrealities envision the day when designer molecular constructors will permit unicellular machines, nano machines to co-inhabit (invited or not) and maintain the body.
Yesterday i spent a few fantastic hours with Antonio Cerveira Pinto in Sevilla. He showed me around Bios4, the exhibition about bio and environmental art he curated at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo. I am going to write about it from A to Z, focussing on some of my favourite pieces and bits of my conversation with Antonio. But let's start the lazy way with just an appetizer of what i've discovered there.
Alexithymia is a term that means the incapacity to verbalize emotions. When some sufferers want to talk but are unable to utter the words, they start sweating to manifest the desire to communicate.
Alexitimia is also the name that Paula Gaetano, an artist from Buenos Aires, gave to her robot. It's a big blob that feels like rubber when you touch it. But it also sweats when you caress its surface. Paula Gaetano has a background in fine art but collaborated with scientists and techno experts to develop the robot. The only sensors are for touch and the only output is water that runs from a tank hidden in the base of the work.
It is creative intuition that permits both the artist and the viewer to leap over logic, whether scientific or artistic, and emotionally experience the problem laid out here of reconciling the "wet" domain of nature with the "dry" domain of electronics.
They talk about "live" tissue engineering, meat sculpture, bioart, and the need to raise public awareness on biotechnology and its impact on society.
Check also these Bio-Blurb radio interviews of people whose work intersects art and science, and particularly biological and genetic sciences.