A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 4th December at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 6th December at 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
The host of this episode is conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen who has spent the past 20 years crossbreeding national species of chicken in order to create the ultimate 'Cosmopolitan Chicken Project.' You might or might not know it but each country has cultivated its own peculiar breed of chicken: the French, for example, have the Poulet the Brest. It's white and red with blue feet, the same colours as their flag. Americans like their chicken to be big and powerful. The Chinese have created a chicken covered in silky feathers.
I've been admiring Vanmechelen's work for several years but i only got to meet him a few weeks ago at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt. That's where the interview took place. The conversation has moments of humour and moments of deeper reflection. There's something both humble and heroic about Vanmechelen's stories of the incestuous and infertile English Red Cap or of the rooster that underwent surgery to be fitted with a new golden spur. But Koen's research project is not just about chicken and egg. His work encroaches on the fields of science, philosophy and ethics to ask questions about biocultural diversity, identity, evolution and freedom of movement.
For a sneak peek of his work, check out this short video of Koen Vanmechelen summing up the Cosmopolitan Chicken:
Or this other one, showing the artist at work in Venice:
Image on the homepage: Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Bresse (M) x English Redcap (F), 2007
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 13th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 15th November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
Pigs Bladder Football looks back at the time when football balls were made from inflated pigs bladder. But instead of using an existing organ, John O'Shea collaborated with a group of scientists at Liverpool University to bio-engineer footballs using animal cells harvested from abattoir waste, replicating the same techniques used to create artificial human organs.
The interview was recorded over the Summer, during AND (Abandon Normal Devices), a festival of new cinema, digital culture and art that takes place annually in Liverpool or Manchester.
It is the first time in the radio show that i manage to talk to both the artist and the scientist. I hope you will enjoy the conversation as much as i did.
P.S. If you happen to be in Eindhoven this month, BioArt Laboratories and MU have invited John O'Shea to give a lecture about his work on November 30.
After Agri is a collaborative investigation between Michiko Nitta and Michael Burton. Their collaboration looks at the future evolutions of our food systems, asking What new cultural revolution will replace agriculture? How will our species and civilisation be transformed?
I met Michiko and Michael ages ago, when they were among the first students graduating from the course of Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London. I liked these two a lot at the time so when i found out in an exhibition guide that had teamed up to form After Agri, i thought i needed to have a close look at their website. It's still early days for After Agri but their portfolio is as provocative and ingenious as i had expected.
Taking into account the latest advances in synthetic biology, geo-engineering, nutrigenomics and other areas of scientific research but also shifts in cultural taboos, issues of climate change and overpopulation, their latest projects include an exhibition exploring two possible future food cultures: Algaculture which proposed a greater symbiosis between algae and the human body and the Republic of Salivation, a dark scenario that sees Governments enforcing restricted food policies where the type of food a citizen receives responds to the emotional, intellectual and physical demands of their job.
More recently, Michiko and Michael were at the Victoria and Albert Museum with an 'Algae Opera' performance that demonstrated in the most spectacular how singers with powerful lung capacity might produce food in a future world where algae have become the world's dominant food source.
The Feast After Agri proposes new food cultures to revolutionize the way we feed ourselves. For the exhibition 'Food Forward' which took place at Stroom a few months ago, you explored two of the seven future food cultures from The Feast After Agri in greater depth: Algaculture and the Republic of Salivation. What are the other 5 future food culture? Could you describe them briefly and tell us which science and technology research has inspired them?
The Feast After Agri project searches for actions, research and experiments that might change the way we produce food and shape our world. Whilst some projects within After Agri propose new foods, we are fascinated by ways to redefine food altogether. We look for signposts to the changes in our behavior that might have a similar magnitude to our historic leap from a hunter-gatherer to an agriculture existence 10,000 years ago. And subsequently how new food and body-fuelling cultures will change our world and our human evolution.
Besides Algaculture and the Republic of Salivation, the Feast After Agri currently proposes five food cultures that respond to a variety of sources. For instance the Symbiotic Bacterial Nation creates a food culture shaped by synthetic biology.
The Subterranean Troglodytes carve out a new niche underground to seek refuge from the spreading desert and UV radiation baked surface of our planet.
Whereas Bovineopolis reflects what Carolyn Steel writes about in her book, Hungry City that "Cities have always moulded nature in their image". Bovineopolis, takes a sideways look at the reality of in-vitro meat production. Here Fetal Bovine serum, an extract from a calf fetus, used in cell culturing is the city's re-rendering of beef. These and the other proposals continue to be developed and will be worked-up to full projects in the future.
I also had a look at your map of the Feast After Agri and it seems that the various food cultures are distributed geographically? Which criteria makes you decide which food culture would be implemented in which part of the world?
The map explores how new geographical boundaries and geo-engineering projects may be re-drawn on top of existing territories according to new food cultures. Instead of a standardized food culture across the globe, the Feast After Agri map charts the diversification in how we respond and evolve to our food and body-fuelling methods.
This map will change and be reconfigured as we add more food cultures and chart the changing climate and geographical composition over time.
In your future food scenarios, do you also see differences in social classes with, for example, privileged people being able to carry on eating as we know it now?
The role between social class systems and diet is a very strong feature in most of the scenarios but particularly the Republic of Salivation. Here the design of diet is used by the Government to enable a citizen workforce to deliver their role in society. For instance, manual workers are given a provision of food that is high in modified starch - to enable the body to run for longer on the least food. Whereas the intellectuals of the country are fed scarcer food like fish, rich in omega 3 fatty acids and fresh fruit, to enrich brain function.
The scenario not only projects into the future but also reflects on the past. In developing the Republic of Salivation we were particularly interested in how food was re-evaluated as fuel for the work-force body in the Victorian workhouses.
I'm curious about the The Algae Opera that took place last month at the V&A. Somehow, you managed to convince a mezzo-soprano to be 'transformed with biotechnology to form a unique relationship with algae.' What do you mean by "transformed"?
The role of transformation in The Algae Opera is a physical and cultural one. We identified the opera singer as the perfect body morphology for the production of algae. The singer's large lung capacity was perfect to exhale the maximum CO2 to feed the algae. To facilitate the process further, the singer, Louise Ashcroft, worked with composer, Gameshow Outpatient, to re-design her singing technique.
The opera aspect of the piece was a second crucial component as we wanted to explore some exciting new research like that carried out by Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford called sonic food enhancement. Gameshow Outpatient and Louise re-designed many conventional operatic techniques. Gameshow Outpatient's Matt Roger described the process as:
"We wanted to create a vocal ritual overtly focused on breath as much as singing, since breath is a fundamental connection between singer and algae, with breath control a technical fundament of singing itself. With this in mind we revisited traditional singing techniques to make explicit the role of breath and breath control in them, the impact on tone colour and stamina for example, seeking to explore 'fragility' as much as 'strength'. We wanted the piece to represent an imaginary 'folk' music, born of a Human/Algae symbiote culture where breath itself is the revered symbol of existence."
Louise's role as a singer was also re-examined and she reflects on the process:
"I have to make a significant shift in the use of breath. The algae mask captures CO2 to grow the algae and requires a non-reflexive breath cycle to maximise CO2 output. This means the singer needs to take the breath cycle to the point of collapse. In today's opera tradition, this type of breath cycle is considered inefficient and undesirable due to the issues surrounding sustainability and aesthetic. However, in The Algae Opera, a breath cycle based on a point of collapse is considered efficient and ultimately desirable, for it produces more algae.
In terms of the sonic enhancement of the algae, our relationship to pitch, tone and vocal colour also changes. Tone and colour in the algae framework is no longer linked just to text and texture, but also to flavour. What this means for me as a trained singer, is that I have to re-think technique, the purpose of the voice and explore a new vocal aesthetic to ensure that an algae sound creates food to feed you and me."
As shown in the diagram, the algae suit/mask works by pumping CO2 from the singer to the algae in the tanks. With a little fertilizer the algae feed and grow. Over a couple of performances the algae population is sufficient enough to harvest. In the opera piece, a chef strains the algae and uses it to make a sushi-like meal that is fed to the audience. The two acts of the opera are composed to consist of sound pitches to enhance the audience's taste of bitterness and sweetness as they eat. As such, they consume the performer's talent and taste her song.
Algaculture is fairly seducing but the Republic of Salivation is downright revolting (or maybe it's just me). What reaction do you expect people to have when they discover the food cultures you're bringing forward?
We're not afraid to investigate the good, bad and ugly future of food cultures. We can't escape the fact that we will have to change our food production methods. Already there's a food crisis and our human population maintains its growth. And hungry people make for a future of panic, civil unrest, conflict and death. However, we still have the luxury now to think, explore, play and try alternative choices.
We are not only interested in the future food itself - we are fascinated in the largest systems that our food systems shape. The scientific research area of nutrigenomics reveals that we literally are what we eat. Our food guides our human evolution.
Also, we want to highlight the ecology of food systems. Therefore After Agri aims to discover how future food cultures will shape our physical world from town planning, landscapes and our global climate. We want to offer a glimpse into how developments in food technology will guide how we live together in societies, inform our political systems and give us new national identities. The projects also aim to consider how our future body-fuelling cultures will change our relationship with the planet's biodiversity and may allow us to populate new ecological niches.
Although these are potential futures, we are not saying these will actually be the future. We hope they act as a mirror onto ourselves to consider the ecological web our food cultures impact on and the sacrifices we will be required to make in subsequent human generations.
Are there any ongoing research in future way of feeding the population that you actually find exciting and would love to try out?
The full integration of algae into the body to make us semi-photosynthetic that features in the Algaculture project is something we would love to try. It's the most extreme transformation of the body we've explored so far and it has the most sacrifices to our current way of life and dietary traditions. Despite these challenges, we would love to feel what it's like to feed from the sun via the algae.
Also we are excited by the research of Alan Horsager, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Genetic Medicine at the University of Southern California. His research implants algae genes in the eyes of blind mice to regain a basic sight perception. In the development of the project we have briefly explored the potential of our bodies gaining a new bodily sensory perception through the light sensitivity of the algae when they are fully integrated, as an interesting by-product of a new dietary lifestyle.
You just published After... The Birth Issue. Can you talk to us about the publication? What do we find inside? Is this the first one of a longer series of books related to a specific topic?
After... is a quarterly journal. Online it can be found at www.afterafter.co.uk. It features work that investigates, experiments and inspires new ways to see our world. It is a way to explore how all of us fit into our shifting and fascinating future.
The journal adopts free-thinking discovery to enhance our understanding of ourselves. We don't want to wait for the future to happen to us. Instead, After... is a place for like-minded people who want to be a part of creating that future.
Inside can be found focused, reflective documentaries, proposals and prototypes for alternative futures. It's a bit of a marriage of East meets West with influences from Michiko's Japanese and Michael's UK backgrounds.
Please let us know if you would like to receive our journal directly or be part of future editions.
Any upcoming project you'd like to share with us?
We are working on the autumn After... issue. We are currently working on two commissions that will launch in October and November. Also we are building ideas and work for a solo exhibition next year called Isoculture. Please check our website for further updates and launch news.
Thanks Michiko and Michael!
As announced previously, i've started a programme about art and science for ResonanceFM. The third episode is broadcast today Monday 4 June at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we will have podcasts (still waiting for them.)
Howard Boland is in the studio today. The artist and mathematician co-founded C-LAB, an interdisciplinary art platform that explores the meaning and idiosyncrasies of the organic and the synthetic life.
7 years ago, I interviewed them about cacti that grow human hair and interstellar plant species. The radio programme catches up with their current interests, mostly magnetic nanoparticles and bacteria that might or might not smell like bananas.
The first episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the radio show about art & science/technology i'm recording for Resonance FM is broadcast today Monday 21 May at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course there will be podcasts.
This week i'm talking with the lovely and lively Anna Dumitriu, visual artist and respected founder and director of The Institute of Unnecessary Research. She explains how she finds herself locked inside university laboratories to collaborate with scientists on major projects. We're talking about bacteria and how the problem is not that they exist but that they keep talking to each other, we're talking panda blood transfusion ahead of the Paris edition of Trust Me, I'm an Artist and there's even a mention of the robot that steals your face.
Anna has a show opening this Wednesday at The Barn Gallery in Oxford. Normal Flora: Bioart Responses to Modernising Medical Microbiology blurs the boundaries between art, textile crafts, and science. It uses a range of digital, biological and traditional media including live bacteria, projections and textiles. I'll be going on Wednesday, expect blurry images on my flickr stream.
Yesterday i was in Manchester for the FutureEverything festival. Mostly to see the art exhibition. The festival is up until Saturday but the exhibition remains open until June 10. It's a good show. Small but smart and with a sharp focus on artistic and political potential of new participatory technologies. I'll come back to it over the weekend.
Right now i wanted to have a look at Ollie Palmer's Ant Ballet.
Because of their decentralized organization (swarm intelligence), ants are a good model for the kind of participatory projects the exhibition is exploring this year. In the designer's work however, the behaviour and navigation of the insects are manipulated for artistic purposes. Palmer has spent 2 years observing the Argentine ant, aka Linepithema humile to build the Ant Ballet Machine, a system that enables him to direct ants and make them move in a choreographed fashion.
Using synthesised pheromones and computer vision system, a robotic arm sprays out pheromone powder trails that cause the ants to follow artificial trails in preference to the route they would normally take in search of food.
The project is separated into four phases referencing the 1974 scifi movie Phase IV. In the film, scientists are puzzled by the complex designs that ants have started building in the desert. The ant colony have in fact undergone rapid evolution as a result of a mysterious cosmic event.
Phase I of the Ant Ballet (2010-2012) is the one documented at the FutureEverything exhibition, it covers thorough research into ants and control systems, synthesis of ant pheromones and testing of systems with live ants in Barcelona. Phases II-IV (2012-2015) will develop further technologies, chemicals and mechanisms. In 2013 the first public ant ballet performance will be presented at Pestival Sao Paolo.
Check out the documentation of the Ant Ballet at the 1830 warehouse, the world's first railway warehouse, part of the MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry), Liverpool Rd, Manchester. Entrance to FutureEverybody art exhibition is free. The show remains open until 10 June 2012.