Having previously given life to a robot that enables plants to move around as they please, Ivan Henriques has collaborated with scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to develop the prototype of an autonomous bio-machine which harvests energy from photosynthetic organisms commonly found in ponds, canals, rivers and the sea.
The Symbiotic Machine uses the energy collected from micro organisms to move around in search for more photosynthetic organisms which it then collects and processes again.
The Symbiotic Machine is currently spending two months in an aquarium in the Glass House in Amstelpark, Amsterdam.
Short conversation with the artist:
Hi Ivan! How does Symbiotic Machine relate to Jurema Action Plant. Is this a continuation of that previous work? Did you learn something from JAP that you are applying to the Symbiotic Machine? Or is this a completely different exploration?
The research that started with Jurema Action Plant led to the development of the Symbiotic Machine (SM). I have created a range of works that explores such concepts as: the future (reinvention) of the environment; the acceleration of techno-scientific mutations; when nature becomes culture; the use of natural resources; where these hybrids of nature and technology will take place in the near future and reshape and redesign our tools to amalgamate and be more coherent with the natural environment (these concepts were discussed in the e-book Oritur). When JAP was being exhibited I noticed that as the interaction between the person and the plant enables the machine to move, people were envision a living entity, which was responding to them - i.e. it likes me!, when JAP was moving towards the person and It doesn't like me!, when it was moving away from the person touching it. That is the reason why I gave the Action Plant a first name: Jurema.
In the past years I have been creating machines that operates within the biological time combining different energy sources. In JAP, the variation of electrical signals inside the plant changes when someone touches it and in Symbiotic Machine it is a machine that makes photosynthesis to generate energy for itself, like a plant. In JAP the machine reads electrical signals and in SM the machine makes photosynthesis in order to have these electrical signals. It is a further research into plants electricity and development of a hybrid entity.
Could you talk to us about the collaboration with scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam? How did you start working with each other? And what was the working process like? Was it just you setting up instructions and telling scientists what to do? Or was it a more hands-on experience?
When I first met Raoul Frese, scientist from the Biophysics Lab from VU Amsterdam, (The Netherlands) I wanted to develop further JAP. I got very inspired after his speech in a symposium at the former NIMK in Amsterdam about photosynthesis. Later we did an appointment to discuss further our possible collaboration. To develop the Symbiotic Machine we had several meetings in my studio and in his lab. Soon, Vincent Friebe, PhD student from Biophysics lab also joined the team.
In this project I wanted to create an autonomous system, which is able to live by itself, as most of the living entities do. For me it is very poetic to create a hybrid living system that can move to search for its own energy source, process it and have energy to do its own life cycle.
We had lots of hands on experiences and exchanging ideas and techniques. The project started with the concept and the technology we could use, but this Beta version was designed according to the necessities and mechanisms the bio-machine required. The project also had collaborations with Michiel van Overbeek who developed the hard/software and the Mechanical Engineer lab from CEFET/RJ (Technological University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).
What are the photosynthetic organisms that the machine harvests? Could you give a few examples? What makes them interesting for the scientists you were working with?
For this prototype we focused in a specific algae: Spirogyra. It is a genus of filamentous green algae, which can be found in freshwater such as canals and ponds. Spirogyra grows under water, but when there is enough sunlight and warmth they produce large amounts of oxygen, adhering bubbles between the tangled filaments. The filamentous masses come to the surface and become visible as slimy green mats.
I asked Raoul Frese why he is interested in photosynthetic organisms: " Scientists are researching photosynthesis and photosynthetic organisms to learn how processes occur from the nanoscale and femtoseconds to the scale of the organism or ecosystem on days and years. It is an excellent example how a life process is interconnected from the molecules to organism to interrelated species. For biophysicists, the process exemplifies molecular interactions upon light absorption, energy transfer and electron and proton transfers. Such processes are researched with the entire experimental physics toolbox and described by theories such as thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. From a technological point of view, we can learn from the process how efficient solar energy conversion can take place, especially from the primary, light dependent reactions and how light absorption can result in the creation of a fuel (and not only electricity)."
Why were you interested in photosynthetic organisms, and in creating a machine that would feed on them and function a bit like them?
My interest in photosynthetic organisms started when I wanted to develop further JAP in a way that a hybrid organism could harvest its own energy to live like a plant. In April 2013, during the residency in NY I had the opportunity to research these microorganisms when I created the installation Microscopic Chamber #1, using a laser pointer to magnify these microorganisms, where people could see in naked eyes projected on a wall different kinds of microorganisms swimming. These living organisms were collected at Belmar beach, in New Jersey and were displayed in the installation in an aquarium where I cultivated them.
The algae Spirogyra is very common in The Netherlands. The choices of the organisms presented in my works are based on the concept, their own technology and location of the specimen. One of the ideas is to adapt the mechanics and electrical system in the machine to be capable to function with the mili-voltages that plants, animals and us have. Create an autonomous system that could use such small scale of electricity to operate. After the residency I had several meetings with scientists from VU Amsterdam where I had the opportunity to research further the Spirogyra and other photosynthetic creatures.
In this research about plant and machines I want to find a way of coexistence between living organisms and machines more integrated, and inspire people for a possible different future.
Could you explain us the shape of the floating mobile robotic structure? Because it looks much more 'organic' than typically robotic. Could you describe the various elements that constitute the robotic structure and what their role is?
The machine is designed to communicate with the environment. For this first model the machine is planned to process the algae from specimen Spirogyra to generate electricity. As this specimen is a filamentous floating organism, the robot has to be in water, floating together with the algae.
The structure is composed by an ellipsoid of revolution with 3 conical shaped arms. Attached to the arms tentacles equipped with sensors. The structure is transparent to catch sunlight at any angle. The choice for an ellipsoid of revolution is to create more surface area for the electrodes (photocells) and to use more of the sun rays onto the photocells when the light reflects in the golden electrodes - using more sunlight by consequence. The tentacles make the robot extend its senses to search for algae. The arms create closed chambers to place electronics.
The machine has a complete digestive system: mouth, stomach and anus. See the video:
Sealed with a transparent cylinder a motor, an endless worm and a pepper grinder aligned and connected by one single axis compose the mouth/anus, like a jellyfish. This cylinder has a liquid inlet/outlet (for water and algae spirogyra) placed at the end part of the endless worm. The endless worm has an important function to pump liquid in and out and to give small propulsion for the machine.
In order to "hack" the algae spirogyra photosynthesis' and apply it as an energy source, the algae cell's membrane has to be broken. The pepper grinder that is connected at the end of the endless worm can grind the algae breaking the membrane cell, releasing micro particles.
These micro particles in naked eyes looks like a "green juice" which is flushed inside the machine: the stomach.
A tube that comes from the end of the mouth with grinded algae goes though the stomach, inside the ellipsoid of revolution. This tube is fastened on a 2-way valve placed in the center of the spherical shape. Inside the ellipsoid of revolution there is another bowl, just one centimeter smaller aligned in the center. Placing this bowl inside, it creates two chambers: 1] the space between the outer skin and the bowl and 2] inside the smaller bowl. In chamber 1 the photocells are placed in parallel and in series. The photocell is composed by a plate covered with gold, a spacer in the middle covered with a copper mesh. This set up allows the "green juice" rest between the gold and copper.
After the light is shed on the electrons of the grinded algae they flow to one of these metals, like a lemon battery. As all the photocells are connected, with the help from the electronic chip LTC 3108 Energy Harvester is possible to store these mili-voltages in two AA rechargeable batteries. A life cycle with functions was idealized in order to program the machine and activate independent mechanical parts of the stomach: it has to eat, move, sunbath, rest, search for food, wash itself, in loop.
The 2-way valve mentioned above is connected as: valve 1 hooked up with chamber 1 and valve 2 with chamber 2. When the stomach works is sent information to the machine that the valve 1 has to be opened. The algae flow to this chamber and the machine uses a light sensor to go towards where there is more luminescence to make photosynthesis. After the 10 min sunbathing (photosynthesis) the machine has to clean its stomach - and the photocells - to be able to eat again. Water is sucked in again with the mouth, and via the same valve from the algae, it pumps more water inside chamber 1 in order to have an overflow of this liquid in chamber 2. The liquid, which is now in chamber 2 is flushed out by the motor turning the endless worm and having the valve 2 opened. Fixed on the edge of the structure opposite the mouth, an underwater pump connected by a vertical axis with a servo powers the movement of the structure giving possibilities to steer 0, 45 and minus 45 degrees. The movement programmed for this machine was written concerned about the duration/time, space and energy.
What is next for the Symbiotic Machine and for you?
This version of the Symbiotic Machine still has to be improved and I would like to continue the research and develop this bio-machine further. I want to keep working to improve what was done. The exhibition is from March 9th until 27th April at the Glazen Huis in Amstelpark, Amsterdam.
Previously by the same artist: Jurema Action Plant.
I don't normally blog about calls or upcoming events. Mostly because as breathtaking as they are, press releases 'copy/pastes' are not my idea of an appealing content. I do like to make exceptions to the rule though. One of them is the Bio Art & Design Award. It used to be called the Designers and Artists for Genomics award but its objective remains unchanged: the award invites designers and artists interested in life sciences to propose projects that push the boundaries of research application and creative expression. Each year the three most remarkable ideas are awarded a 25,000 euro grant to bring the project to life and exhibit it.
To be eligible for the award you must have graduated no longer than five years ago from a design or art program (at either the Masters or Bachelors level). Applicants are encouraged to relate their proposals to recent advances in the Life Sciences, including those within specialties such as ecology, biomedicine and genomics.
The deadline is 2 February 2014.
The selection process is rigorous, the research institutes associated seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about the collaboration and the results of the partnership are usually so exciting that i've blogged about them relentlessly in the past (check out in particular: The Living Mirror, Ergo Sum, the now iconic 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin', etc.)
I took the call for proposals as an excuse to chat about the award with Angelique Spaninks and Wilma van Donselaar. Angelique is the head of MU, the art center which is going to exhibit the winning projects next Winter and Wilma, who works at the the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, has been working on the Award from the beginning.
Designers and Artists for Genomics is now Bio Art & Design Award. Why did the name change? Does it involve any modification in the award? The way it is organized, its purpose, the spirit, the organizations involved?
Angelique Spaninks : The change of the name is partly due to a shift in organizational parties. The Netherlands Genomics Initiative that has set up the award has ceased to exist per January 1 of this year but it has managed to guarantee a budget for a similar award. This has been brought under care of ZonMW, the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, that is now in the lead. The other new partners are NWO (the Dutch Research Council) and MU, one of the leading art foundations in the Netherlands with a hybrid program reaching from contemporary art to design, media art and popculture.
MU will take care of coordination towards the exhibition of the three winning projects, combined with other new bio art and design projects. De Waag is still on board and so are several leading universities and research centers for the Life Sciences that provide teams of scientists that will closely collaborate with the artists and designers that will be selected to work on their proposals. In that sense the purpose and spirit have not changed, and neither has the prize money.
I'm, as always, impressed by the quality and quantity of scientific organizations the award got on board. Why do you think they accept the challenge to work with an artist or designer? What does the collaboration with a creative individual with an entirely different background and -i suspect- perspective bring to their research activities?
Wilma van Donselaar of ZonMW: At first the only scientific organizations that participated were funded by the Netherlands Genomics Inititiative and they had to be persuaded a bit in the beginning, but quite soon they thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration. The artists bring in completely new ideas and often challenge them into exploring new technological possibilities. There has to be a connection of course, but that is something that already becomes quite clear during the matchmaking event at the start of the competition. The only reason why it is difficult to keep scientists on board year after year is that it takes a lot of time. That is why we also bring in fresh research groups. But since we can show the results of previous award rounds now, that is not so difficult anymore.
Who should apply to the award? Is it mostly interactive designers and media artists or could a more 'traditional' artist/designer get a chance provided he's passionate enough about the possibility to engage with Life Science materials and ideas?
AS: We don't exclude anyone with an exciting but also viable proposal, who has graduated no more than five years ago in the field of art and design. Of course it will be more easy for artists/designers with some experience in working with Life Science materials and ideas, but the award is also there to stimulate young creatives to explore new territories and enhance the options for collaboration between creatives and scientists. All this to broaden and deepen the interest in and debate about the Life Sciences through the arts and examine it's social, cultural and ethical contexts.
How is an artistic/design proposal paired with a scientific institute? What is the process?
AS: Each participant can submit only one application before February 2. This application consists of a preliminary idea, portfolio and filled out registration form. Only 16 applicants will be selected for a matchmaking meeting in The Hague in March, where the creatives have to find a match with a team of scientists from one of the participating Dutch Life Science institutes. A list of the participating research groups of the 12 Dutch Life Science institutes can be found on the website www.badaward.nl. Once the matches are made artists/designers and scientists write a joint full proposal for the Award before end of April. Then mid-May all teams have to present their final proposals to the international jury which will then select the 3 winners. All proposals will not only be presented to the jury that day but also to the public. From June till November the Award winning proposals are realized by the artist/designers and scientists together and will be exhibited in MU art space on Strijp S in Eindhoven for 2 months starting from November 28, 2014.
Also I was wondering how the winning projects get accepted (or not) by the design and/or art world? Are they seen as hard to grasp and comment on pieces or does the art press and the art public embrace them as valuable and challenging expressions of creativity?
AS: The Award functions as a springboard, either for new nominations or Awards, new or extended collaborations, grants, positions or new publications. Experience with the first 3 years and 10 Award winners has learned that there is a growing interest in bio art and design in press and society but the art and design world themselves are lagging behind a bit. By presenting the winners in a respected yet hybrid contemporary art space like MU and in a leading art, design & technology driven city like Eindhoven we are convinced this will gradually change.
Thanks Angelique and Wilma!
From the back-cover: Every second year the Finnish Society of Bioart invites a significant group of artists and scientists to the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Lapland/Finland to work for one week on topics related to art, biology and the environment. "Field_Notes - From Landscape to Laboratory" is the first in a series of publications originating from this field laboratory. It emphasizes the process of interaction between fieldwork, locality and the laboratory. Oron Catts, Antero Kare, Laura Beloff, Tarja Knuuttila amongst others explore the field and laboratory as sites for art&science practices.
I was about to add this book to the list of books i liked in 2013 but i decided at the last minute that i might as well give it its own space.
In 2011, the Finnish Society of Bioart organised the Field_Notes - Cultivating Grounds laboratory. Five working groups led by Oron Catts, Marta de Menezes, Anu Osva, Tapio Makela and Terike Haapoja developed various art and science projects while in contact with nature and ecology in Kilpisjärvi, a rural area in Lapland, Finland.
The book contains seventeen articles (in both English and Finnish) that report and meditate on the research, reflections and activities that took place during the scientists and artists' stay in Lapland. Field_Notes offers one of the very few residences that allows people who engage with art&science to work and experiment directly in a natural environment and not exclusively in laboratories or galleries.
I wouldn't say that this is a book for anyone who's interested in bioart. It's not the kind of crazy sexy pop bioart you read about in Wired magazine (or in my own blog.) It is sober and at time theoretical, but not less surprising and thought-provoking than any razzle-dazzle bioart works you've read about in the past.
Field_Notes offers is a great mix of essays by scientists and lively stories of experiments by artists. I particularly enjoyed reading Laura Beloff's essay on how experience is a key aspect (and sometime even the main objective) of art practices that use organic materials or has some affinity with science. Professor Antero Järvinen wrote about the icon of global warming that is the Arctic charr and more generally about the difficulty of drawing simple conclusion of complex material systems and phenomena. Oron Catts came with the most unexpected essay about a piece of plexiglass from a German aircraft that had crashed in Kilpisjärvi in 1942 and how the discovery led him to explore 'new materialism in action'. Andrew Gryf Paterson has a great piece about berries foraging and a proposal to set up Berry Commons which sounds trivial until he makes you realize the politics of berries. Maria Huhmarniemi looked at the dilemma of preserving the endangered Capricornia Boisduvaliana butterfly or building an hydroelectric power plant.
I'll close with two of the many projects i discovered in this book:
A Unit is a miniature green area an individual would wear on their shoulder. A Unit speculates on the concept of green environment and its beneficial impact. It experiments with an idea of wearable miniature green space that becomes part of ones everyday existence and asks if this can be considered as natural environment with potential health benefits?
A Unit contains a GM-plant or other primarily human-constructed plant and as such acts as a training device for our changing relation with organic nature for the future when both humans and nature are artificially modified or constructed.
Niki Passath took his touristic robots for walks around Kilpisjärvi and soon found out that fungi and bacteria had adopted them as a habitat. Traces of moss and lichen started to grow on the structures.
So there you are: a serious, solid book for anyone who'd like to go beyond the easy reductions, the fast conclusions and simplification that sometimes characterizes articles and books about bioart.
Last week, i mentioned my quick trip to Leiden to see the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, an international competition that gives artists and designers the opportunity to collaborate with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.
One of the winning works is The Living Mirror, a 'bio-installation' that combines magnetic bacteria with electronics and photo manipulation to create liquid, 3D portraits. The piece was developed by Laura Cinti & Howard Boland from the art-science collective C-Lab in partnership with AMOLF, a research institute focusing on nanophotonics and physics of biomolecular systems
Living Mirror involves cultivating magnetotactic bacteria, a group of bacteria able to orient along the magnetic field lines of Earth's magnetic field. The artists collected the bacteria and used an array of tiny electromagnetic coils to shift the magnetic field, causing the bacteria rapidly reorient their body that changes how light is scattered. The resultant effect can be seen as a light pulse or a shimmer. Taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images, [C-Lab] programmatically harmonise hundreds of light pulses to re-represent the image inside a liquid culture.
I had a quick Q&A with the artists:
Hi Laura and Howard! The Living Mirror, to me at least, almost belongs to the world of magic.It uses software, hardware and wetware. It is a particularly complex project. How did you know it would work out in the end? And what were the biggest challenges you encountered during its development?
Indeed, as a work it has been a very ambitious undertaking that integrates quite complex processes of wetware, software and hardware. We had to work very closely with various types of engineering disciplines and work as engineers ourselves. Over the past few months we built several prototypes to help us understand how a magnetic culture of bacteria might work. In the beginning when we worked on pulling biomass our biggest challenge was to generate enough bacteria and have a system that could produce a significant magnetic pulling force.
The interactive art installation was aimed at producing real-time images using living bacteria - but pulling biomass was slow. When we discovered that these bacteria produced a shimmering effect in real-time we were intrigued and felt that this was a better phenomenon to pursue and also allowed us to work with much lower magnetic forces. By changing the magnetic field we were seeing bacteria rapidly switching direction in a synchronic rotation causing light to scatter and producing a visible shimmer. So the major challenges we have encountered so far has been cultivating these bacteria and producing the electronic boards needed for approximately 250 individual magnetic coils.
There are many unknowns in the project which is what makes it quite exciting for us - having living bacteria respond in real-time is not something we experience on a visual scale we are accustomed to and finding out whether this system will be able to produce shimmering pixels that can form a portrait image is to be seen in the weeks to come.
To see the shimmering effect we observe, please see these videos below:
In LIVING MIRROR, multiple pulsating waves of bacteria are made to form a pixelated image using electromagnetic coils that shift magnetic fields across surface areas. By taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images, LIVING MIRROR programmatically attempts to harmonise hundreds of light pulses to re-represent the image inside a liquid culture.
In the proposal you wrote for the competition, you say that "Recent years have seen the human body reconfigured as an ecosystem of mostly non-human bacterial cells. Together with fungi and human cells, these form our complex 'superorganism', an image the work seeks to renegotiate by literally reflecting and fleshing out these ideas." Could you elaborate what you mean by that?
Until recently, our understanding of human 'self' was, at least biologically speaking, thought to be 'human' cells. This perspective is now understood to include microbial communities and interestingly, these microbial cells not only outnumber our own 'human' cells but our bodies contain significantly more of microbial DNA than our own genome. (Our bodies contain a mere 10 per cent of human cells and 90 per cent microbial cells). In this sense our bodies can be seen as a 'superorganisms' - working collectively as a unified organism or an ecosystem.
As a liquid biological mirror, LIVING MIRROR draws on the idea of water as our first interface predating today's screen-based digital technologies. It points to the myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own image by believing it was someone else in the water reflection. Drawn into the image, he tragically drowned - a reminder of how we continue to immerse ourselves in similar mirrors as we extend our identity into the virtual. Simultaneously, the work highlights how contemporary science has shattered the idea of our own body by recognising that we are mostly made up of non-human bacterial cells. These ideas have shaped digital and biological understandings of our human self and are technically and conceptually reflected in LIVING MIRROR.
A living mirror is a very seducing idea. Do you see possible applications for it? Or was it just an artistic experiment?
Throughout the project we have been in communication with many leading researchers and there are certainly some specific technological overlaps (i.e. possible use of shimmer as a magnetic measurement or methods for orienting or guiding cells). As a display what can be seen is certainly different to existing technologies and LIVING MIRROR remains a research-based artwork.
Thanks Laura and Howard!
The Living Mirror and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands.
Last weekend i was in Leiden, a short train trip away from Amsterdam, for the opening of an exhibition of the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award.
The DA4GA give artists the opportunity to develop ambitious projects in cooperation with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.
One of the recipients of the award is Charlotte Jarvis who used her own body to demystify the processes and challenge the prejudices and misunderstandings that surround stem cell technology.
Ergo Sum started as a performance at the WAAG Society in Amsterdam. In front of the public, the artist donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Blood, skin and urine samples were taken and sent to the stem cell research laboratory at The Leiden University Medical Centre iPSC Core Facility headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Mummery.
The scientists then transformed the samples into induced pluripotent stem cells, which in turn have been programmed to grow into cells with different functions such as heart, brain and vascular cells.
The whole process used the innovation which earned John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka a joint Nobel Prize last year. The two scientists are indeed behind the discovery that adult, specialised cells can be reprogrammed and turned back into embryo-like stem cells that can become virtually any cell type and thus develop into any tissue of the body.
The pluripotent stem cells offer an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, removing the ethical questions and controversies that surrounded the use of embryonic stem cells.
But let's get back to Charlotte's stem cells. Copies are now kept by the university for scientists to use in their research. And because the cells can be stored for an unlimited period, they are immortal. The ones that are on view at the exhibition in Leiden right now have to be kept alive by a team of scientists who regularly visit the exhibition space to care for the cells.
The synthesized body parts (now brain, heart and blood cells) are kept in an incubator made especially by a company specialized in museum displays as traditional incubator don't have a window that would allow the public to have a peak inside. The cells are accompanied by videos, prints of email exchanges, photos and other items that document the whole story of the project.
Ergo Sum is a biological self-portrait; a second self; biologically and genetically 'Charlotte' although also 'alien' to her - as these cells have never actually been inside her body.
You first idea was to donate your eggs for the project but the scientists told you this might not only be illegal but also unnecessary. Could you explain why the eggs were unsuitable for the experiment and what the lab used in the end?
In the first instance I was unable to donate an egg because of the birth control I take. I have a three monthly injection (the DEPPO) which works by stopping egg production. It can take a year for your body to start producing eggs again after stopping the DEPPO, so I would not have been able to produce an egg in time for the project.
However, there were also ethical reasons for not donating an egg. I believe fervently in the use of embryos for scientific research, as of course do the scientists I work with. They have to fight for the right to use embryos in their research and under no circumstances would I do anything to jeopardise that. The use of embryos for artistic purposes is a different moral question. I felt that it would have been wrong (and potentially damaging to the scientists working on the project) to confuse those two ethical questions by making an art project utilising the scientific method for making embryonic stem cells.
What we used instead was stem cells derived from adult tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (IPSCs) and it is this technology that won the Nobel Prize last year. I donated skin, blood and urine to the lab. The lab was then able (using this new and wonderous technology) to send those cells back to how they were when I was a foetus - to turn them back into the stem cells they had been roughly 29 years ago. You could call it cellular time travel! I find our ability to do this completely awe inspiring.
Now that you've finally met your 'second self, your dopplegänger, do you feel you have some kind of connection to it?
Seeing my heart cells beating was a unique experience - especially the first time I saw it. There is something that feels distinctly 'alive' about the beating heart cells and something quite extraordinary about seeing part of your own heart beating and living outside your body. But in general I would say that I feel no more connected to my second self than I would any other self portrait. I do not feel that these parts of me are sacred in some way, or even that they really belong to me in anything other than the genetic sense. That is really the point of the project - to question how we build our identity as humans and how that might change in the future. This may sound obvious, but I have learnt that I am more than the sum of my parts; that just because something has my heart, my brain and my flowing blood it is not 'me' and it is not a human.
Ergo Sum and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands. Ergo Sum is funded by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative.
Adam Brown is a conceptual artist working with scientists to create art pieces that use robotics, molecular chemistry, living systems and emerging technologies. Years ago, i saw one of his works at Emoção Art.ficial [Art.ficial Emotion], a Biennial of Art and Technology in Sao Paulo. The robotic sculpture, called Bion, explored the relationship between humans and artificial life. Fast forward to May 2013 when i am aimlessly clicking around and stumble upon one of his most recent pieces. This time, the project doesn't use swarms of responsive synthetic "life-form" but bacteria that, over a period of one week, process the toxins of gold chloride and produce nuggets of 24-karat gold.
The Great Work of the Metal Lover earned Brown and his collaborator microbiologist Dr. Kazem Kashefi world-wide media coverage, an Honorary Mention at Ars Electronica as well as a Special mention at VIDA.
Brown brings together science and art into each of his works, from the initial concept up to the final realization. His artistic practice not only challenges scientific inquiry but it also comes with undeniable aesthetic qualities (something that is sometimes little more than a second thought in artworks that make use of the latest advances in science and technology.) Simply put, his artworks are beautiful to look at. While the Bion sculpture (below) is as stunning as it is smart, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x (a working scientific experiment that builds on Miller-Urey's 1953 experiment to draw attention to the artifice and aesthetics of experimentation) neatly hangs scientific instruments and processes on a wall as if they were museum paintings.
Brown is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University where he created the Electronic Art & Intermedia department. He is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts at Ball State University, and serves as an Artist in Residence for the Michigan State University BEACON (Bio/Computational Evolution in Action Consortium) project.
I interviewed him via email just before he flew to Sydney to attend the ISEA Symposium on Electronic Art.
Hi Adam! What you've achieved sounds almost like a fantasy... Using bacteria to turn valueless material into gold. I'm sorry for the very mundane question but why don't you make it a full time activity? You could be drinking cocktails on your yacht, on your way to a golf game with Donald Trump instead of answering my questions right now...
This is probably one of the most asked questions that I have received about this piece. The other question that is often asked is if I can share with people how to "make gold." The potential to make gold and accumulate wealth is a very powerful motivator of the human condition. Even Forbes wrote about it. Fortunately, the process is not cost effective at this point. I have to buy the soluble form of gold I put into the reactor and, since the bacteria only grow in anaerobic conditions (no oxygen), I also have large expenses in creating the conditions for their growth.
Of course the natural follow up question is if it is possible to harvest the dissolved concentrations of gold in the oceans (which contain about 10 parts per million). It might be possible, but it would take a great deal of expense to scale up a system that would be efficient and cost effective. However, this is not something that I am interested in doing. What would be the environmental costs of engaging in such an activity? With our limited knowledge of the oceans ecosystem it is unclear what would happen to the ocean life if it were depleted of dissolved gold. As an artist, I'm more concerned with probing and questioning the potential impact of our ability to engineer and control nature.
What brought you to alchemy? A nostalgia for an ancient quest or the mere curiosity to explore what an artist can do with modern microbiology?
Alchemy is a topic that I have been interested in for quite a long time. Alchemy incorporates both a spiritual, creative and scientific pursuit all in one. As an artist of the 21st century working with biological systems, alchemy feels like an appropriate model of reference.
At the height of Alchemy during the time of the European Renaissance the world appeared to be much less defined. Artists were at the same time engineers, architects, alchemists, chemists. It was possible for a single person to strive to be the universal person and have relatively deep knowledge of many fields. Of course times have changed, complexity has grown and specialization has become more necessary. Newer technologies including augmented memory and instantaneous access to information have changed the way artists work. Now instead of being the total person one can employ collaborative practice to venture into territories that were previously inaccessible. This changes the role of the artist to one more akin to manager or director.
I also like the poetics of possibly solving the ancient alchemical problem of the philosopher's stone using modern microbiological science. Interestingly, the process does have some overlap to the description provided by alchemists describing the philosopher's stone. One would know when they were getting close to transmuting base metals into gold because the solution would turn a redish/purple color called "rubedo." The bioreactor of the GWML turns a purplish color when the microbial community is precipitating gold.
You developed the work in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi from the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University. What form did the collaboration take exactly? Was it you dictating what needs to be done and the scientist was executing your instructions. Or is the experience more hands-on from your part? With a more critical feedback from Dr Kashefi?
The relationship was hands on and mutualistic. One of my major interests is in origins of life research. This led me to extremophiles as they are probably some of the first forms of organized life on the planet and to Dr. Kashefi (Kaz). I read a paper he wrote in 2000 about how anaerobic extremophile microorganisms have the ability to precipitate heavy metals and even gold. I asked him if he thought it possible to devise a system capable of producing enough gold that one could hold in one's hand. This was the beginning of the collaboration. Over the course of a year, Kaz and I conceptualized how to construct a sustained culture capable of this task. He taught me the lab bench practices to, culture, grow anaerobic microorganisms. I designed, conceptualized and built the installation; Kaz led the scientific inquiry but we practiced the science together.
Unlike many works that merge art and science which outcome only appear in art publications, articles about The Great Work of the Metal Lover also appeared in science magazines. So what makes the piece appealing to the scientific community?
One of my goals as an artist, especially when it comes to collaboration is make work that has a high degree of mutuality between the respective disciplines. While it is not always the case, when working collaboratively I like to try to make contributions to the various fields of research that are represented. So, in this case, it is important to not only make contributions to the arts, but also to the sciences. The GWML does tap into interesting science in that we have shown that the microorganism is able to survive and even flourish on much higher concentrations of gold chloride than has ever been reported (ten fold in fact). Secondly, the research is relevant to scientists that are interested in the possibility of metabolic process being responsible for mineral production. Finally, novel uses of microbes, including genetically modified versions, are a hot topic for research at the moment; scientists are looking at biotechnologies to do everything from bioremediation, to microbial pharmaceuticals, to even energy production. Of course, gold does have a universal appeal, having been coveted by most people; scientists are not excluded from this bias.
The artwork doesn't stop at creating gold nuggets, it also features images made using a scanning electron microscope and an ancient gold illumination techniques. Could you explain us what the process involved and what the images represent?
The description of the work Origins of Life: Experiment 1 opens on a quote by biologist E. O. Wilson "The aim of art is not to show how or why an effect is produced (that would be science) but literally to produce it."
The quote illustrates a close alignment between art and science and that the practices are more connected then disconnected. The artist wishes to create a phenomenological output while the scientist's main goal is to understand the phenomenon: a complementary/mutualistic relationship; an epistemological difference signifying that there are many more commonalities than differences. This once again ties into the discussion of the previous question about collaboration and mutualism. Origins of Life is an installation and a performative re-enactment of the Miller experiment that attempts to quite literally depict this relationship. It is in essence a contextual problem filled with an epistemological shifting perspective.
The Great Work can be summed up in a catchy headline, but Origins of Life cannot be reduced so easily to one sentence. Not everyone knows about the Miller-Urey experiment for example. So how do you manage to engage a scientific audience with an artwork and vice versa: how do you get the attention of art lovers with a work that deals with scientific theories?
True. Not everyone knows about the details of the Miller experiment, but big questions such as "where do we come from?" and "how did life begin?" have a much greater universal appeal overlapping with philosophy, religion, art and science. You don't have to know anything about Miller-Urey or theories of how life originated to be fascinated by an apparatus that makes lightning and thunder, bubbles and boils, gleams and glistens and mysteriously converts a tank full of gas into brown-colored goo. Once interested, you can get the scientists to think about the artistic aspects of their practice and the artists to think about creating life as a metaphor for the creative process itself. The origins of life question is also what makes us human.
You also defined the project as being "open source", as it 'invites contributions and participation from other scientists.' If find you very brave. not many artists would be comfortable with the idea. Why was it important to you to leave them this open door instead of keeping the project stable and immutable? Could you tell us how and if scientists have contributed or pushed it further and, more generally, how they have reacted to the work?
Once again, it goes back to the idea of collaborative practice and mutuality and started out as a collaboration with the scientist Robert Root-Bernstein. While it is important for me to have some conceptual ownership over the work, it is also important to attempt to solve the mystery of how life started on the earth. And technically, the original scientific experiment does not belong to me either as it is an appropriation from Miller. Are not the under-pinnings of the scientific method that of "open source"?
I have been interested in the Miller experiment since I was in high school. The original experiment enacted by Miller in 1953 never seemed to make much headway after the initial experiment; that is the production of amino acids from inorganic material. Perhaps this was a result of available technology of the time. When Miller died in 2008 I felt like it was an opportunity to continue with the project. There are many adaptations and further experiments that were never realized or maybe thought of: such as adding a phosphorus source like salt or even running the experiment for longer then a week. Since trying out some of these modifications we have synthesized Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) the power source of cellular life as well as a building block of DNA and also have shown evidence of the production of lipids which are the materials that make up cellular membranes.
Most scientists have been very positive about the project. They realize that scientific funding agencies are very conservative and can only fund what will obviously work. But what we already know will work doesn't help us progress in our understanding. Engaging in the project as a performance lets us break out of the constraints that the scientific peer review system imposes so we can try the kinds of experiments most origins of life scientists would really like to try.
In fact, one scientist who had invented an ultra-sensitive ATP-measuring device, donated one to us so we could test whether we could make ATP along with amino acids. Overall, the scientific community has received the work very positively. Origins of life research in general has massive appeal. It is inspirational to scientists and artists both.
Any upcoming project, exhibition, areas of investigation you'd like to share with us?
I have a few projects in the works. I will definitely share them with you and We-Make-Money-Not-Art when they are ready to be released in the near future.
Yes, please! And thank you for your answers Adam.