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.
You might remember that over 8 months ago i spent 7 days in Pittsburgh for a A/S/T Book Sprint. Together with curator Andrea Grover, art and science writer and pop star Claire L. Evans and architect and designer Pablo Garcia, i spent a whole week locked inside the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University discussing and writing about the intersection of art/science/technology with explorations into maker culture, hacking, artist research, distributed creativity, and technological and speculative design.
Andrea also had the bright idea to involve graphic designers Jessica Young, and Luke Bulman from Thumb in the whole production process. Each evening we would gather around their computer screens and watch how these two talented designers had given shape to our ideas and texts.
The book is finally out! It's called New Art/Science Affinities and you can either buy it on Lulu or download the PDF for free.
Don't expect to read the ultimate compendium of all things art and science (it was written in only 7 days by 4 people after all), it would be more appropriate to see it as a subjective snapshot of what the art&science community is up to right now (or rather 8 months ago). What i can say with certainty is that the book is the result of one of the most exciting moments of my blogger life. So thank you Andrea for inviting us to book sprint, to Golan Levin for hosting us at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, to Astria Suparak from the Miller Gallery for her continuous support. And a huge thank you to all the artists we've contacted at the very last moment with an urgent request to send us photos or to talk with us on skype.
Views inside the book:
I was planning to post this interview next week but because Ivan Henriques's action plant is yet another brilliant work on show at ArtBots Gent this weekend, i thought it would be silly to wait and not promote the event with a timely post.
Ivan Henriques worked with professor Bert van Duijn (Biology University and Hortus Botanicus in Leiden) on a research into the "action potential" of the Mimosa Pudica. The result of their collaboration is Jurema Action Plant, a machine which interfaces a sensitive plant (Mimosa Pudica), enabling it to enjoy technologies similar to the ones humans use. The project also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between machines, humans, and other living organism.
Plants don't have nerves, wires nor cables but much like humans, animals and machines, they have an electrical signal traveling inside their cells. The plant is fitted with electrodes and placed on a robotic structure. A signal amplifier reads the differences in the electromagnetic field around the plant to determine when it is being touched. Any variation triggers movement of the robotic structure by means of a custom-made circuit board. Touching any part of the plant is enough to make it move away from the person touching it. One of the most common names given to that plant after all is 'touch-me-not.'
If the plants can fell the touch and this signal travels inside the plant and be can be measured in any part, does it means that plants have memory, consciousness?
Imagine if we could communicate with plants and work together. Is it possible to reshape and redefine our tools to be coherent with the environment? Would we keep on destroying the few existent plants/animals and forests?
Hi Ivan! How did you get the idea and why did you want to build this plant-machine and give some power to the plants?
The main idea of empowering the plant comes from a range of work that I am developing called Oritur (Oritur is also the title of the book which is a compilation of texts from myself and invited artists and researchers from different countries - it will be published soon by Verbeke Foundation).
Jurema Action Plant (JAP) is a hacked wheelchair and an electronic board of communication with the Mimosa -- acting as an interface of communication between the bio-machine and us. In order to realize this work I thought about three aspects: biodiversity, plant intelligence and machine intelligence. 1) Creating a new kind of specimen, an assemblage of a plant and a machine -- a hybrid; 2) A simple movement of a finger towards the plant leaves makes it move away after the touch; 3) The plant triggers the hacked machine via the electronic board of communication into movement. While developing this work at the Summer Residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam/NL, it raised some questions:
Are the mechanics found in some plants species an intelligence? Do plants feel? How do they respond to the environment? Are plants considered in a lower level than us because they don't move and communicate in the same timescale as ours? My position in Jurema Action Plant is to explore plant behavior, research this intelligence to find possibilities for direct interaction and create a work which makes people think about our future.
You're going to spend several months at the Verbeke Foundation for a residency. What are you going to work on there?
At the moment I am rebuilding a piece called Three Seconds which will be part of Verbeke's collection. It is composed of a closed circuit where a video camera, which faces and captures images from a rectangular aquarium containing a live Goldfish, the image is transmitted to a monitor, which has the same proportions of the aquarium and also faces it. Between the camera and the monitor there is an apparatus, which gives a three second delay to the live image. In this way the fish, which as we know has a three second memory-span, can see its recent past, which it would otherwise not be able to reach.
I am very exited to start the residency at Verbeke foundation (which will complete two weeks October 11th) and I have several ideas which are in a cloud of concepts such as architecture, recycle, interaction, biology, evolution, utopia, movement, kinetics and living organisms.
You worked with professor Bert van Duijn from the Biology University and the Hortus Botanicus, in Leiden, to develop the action plant. How was the collaboration going? Do you find it easy as an artist to communicate with a scientist? Do you use the same language, for example? Do you have to adjust to each other's way of working and thinking about nature?
While researching about plants mechanics, physiology and biodynamics, I had the opportunity to meet professor Bert van Duijn who uses a technique called action potential to measure electrical signals that travels inside the plant for agricultural purposes. Through professor van Duijn I met the organization from Hortus Botanicus Leiden which opened their doors to my research about this specific plant and helped me seed the Mimosas. We had to adjust our vocabulary and tools all the time and the whole team had different perspectives and goals when working with nature.
Can you also tell us something about the rhythm of the plant? Sometimes it rests, it doesn't react as fast as the machines we are used to (from toaster to robot)... Do you think humans are ready to accept and respect this 'slowness' of the machine?
Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. Plants are completely independent and can exist without humans, but humans and animals need plants to survive. They are also moving, to extend their territory, but on a very different timescale to ours. Jurema Action Plant has its own time, it is an equalization of ourselves, machines and plants. In my opinion we have to re-think about the machines we develop and the concept of bio-sensors. There are plenty of machines in the world and we keep on making them. Do you know where these electronic components comes from, how they are made and in which conditions? Why not re-use? The machines we create are coherent within themselves but I think that our machines could be much more coherent to the environment. JAP is a prototype of machines for our future, where we can communicate with all the specimens at the same level to achieve a common evolution. Even if we have signs of a catastrophe in the next future due to global warming, war, deforestation, population growth and a very strong economical difference from place to place, I believe in a good future. The problem is not the technological development, but who is in charge of researches, innovations and changes.
What are you doing when you're not working on Jurema Action Plant?
I have some projects going on and I'm preparing new ones, making drawings, graphics, researching about kinetic architectures and motors that run with very low voltage and current. I am also preparing the third edition of EME - Estúdio Móvel Experimental (first edition 2009 and second in 2010), a mobile residency in Rio de Janeiro that works as a platform for artists and researchers to explore and create public artworks/workshops in the natural and urban environment in Rio.
This year's ArtBots is organised by timelab Gent, in cooperation with ArtBots US, Ugent and Foam. It's open only over the upcoming weekend in Ghent, Belgium.
If you miss ArtBots, Jurema Action Plant is also exhibited at the Verbeke Foundation and it will travel to Leiden in October for the Scheltema festival.
Summer is back in London and dozens of bees have now settled in the middle of Spitalfields. Real bees passersby don't try to wave away. They are dead and hang on fishing lines as if they were caught in mid flight inside a giant glass case, surrounded on all sides by office blocks.
The work is called BEE BOX and was created by artist Anne Brodie to remind us of the overlooked disappearance of the pollinators. Bees, like us, form communities of workers capable of generating intelligent social interactions.
"There is also a very strong and perhaps more obvious analogy between both human and bee society's, particularly in the heart of the working city," the artist told me. "Both are fragile systems capable of working harmoniously and productively, but what happens when the balance becomes unstable? It seemed particularly poignant the week before beebox was installed, London had to deal with some of the worst riots in recent history."
BEE BOX was curated by Howard Boland and Laura Cinti of C-LAB with the support of the European Public Art Centre, a collaboration between European organisations to exhibit in public space works that explore relations between art, science and society art-science artworks. The work will remain on view on the square until November 1 and will be recreated in Helsinki in October, using Finnish bees.
More images in the flickr set: European Public Art Centre: in London with C-LAB and Spitalfields - Anne Brodie's Bee Box 2011.
The Killifish lives in puddles, sometimes in the middle of a road, where trucks drive through. These habitats provide little competition for food, and are disregarded by predators, especially since water is brown and unclear. The obvious disadvantage is that puddles are highly unstable habitats. One of the strategies killifishes have developed to cope with this is to jump out of the puddle, maybe landing in a new one. Many don't make it.
Because puddles are different, the populations evolve into new species rather quickly. The kamikaze behaviour and the multitude of subspecies have triggered the interest of a community of killifish collectors, who travel to puddles in the tropics, collect live specimens and bring them home where they will breed the fish with a self imposed ethic: the killifish must stay exactly as they were found in the puddle, and not change between generations.
For artist Mateusz Herczka, the killifish behaviour and culture reveal a new relationship between nature and people, as if the killifish have infiltrated culture, and are now part of the cultural evolution rather than the biological. He followed the example of the killifish and infiltrated the killifish keepers community, learning, exchanging information and tactics.
Because the way killifish jumps from one puddle to another remained to be properly documented, Herczka flooded his studio and captured this spontaneous jumping in HD video. The video material shows jumps under various conditions and still frames have been composited to show the jumping technique and the trajectory. The fish always jump in the middle of the night when nobody is around.
To understand how fish can survive in a puddle with trucks driving through it, the artist set up a digital simulation using software which simulates liquid, and rolled a virtual tire through a virtual puddle. Finally, an ambitious reconstruction of the puddle is being built at the Verbeke Foundation, to be completed in the next coming months. Unsurprisingly, recreating a South American puddle in an unheated Belgian space was quite a technical challenge. The huge cube of glass and metal contains a reconstruction of a puddle found in the middle of a road in Guyana, with a truck wheel rolling through it.
The Verbeke Foundation isn't easy to reach if you don't own a car but the result of Mateusz Herczka's research is documented and presented with plenty of visual material and also aquariums containing fish, worms, artemia and springtails in the exhibition Puddle Drive-Through Simulation currently open at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE).
I hope to be able to visit the show when i'm in Belgium next month. In the meantime, i asked Mateusz to answer my many questions:
How did you first encounter the Killifish? But even more importantly, what made you want to spend more than 3 years working with them?
There is a two-floor basement near my studio in Stockholm. The upper floor was a club for mini-z model car racing. A steel door leading to the lower floor says "Södermalms Akvarieaffär, kom in och titta", (South-side's aquarium shop, come in and have a look). One day I needed glass and thought maybe they could sell me some. Upon entering, I realized this is not a regular aquarium shop. The atmosphere was somewhere in between a laboratory, and a computer club I belonged to as a teenager. Passing a few normal looking aquariums and some merchandise, I turned a corner and saw rows of murky aquariums with carefully written labels showing Latin names and some kind of codes. The fish didn't look like any I had seen in other shops. Homemade devices, bubbling liquids in plastic bottles, cultures of little worms and jumping things.
I was approached by a guy who said "Amazing, isn't it? Janne only works with nature forms." He indicated the owner, Jan Wester, who turned out to be an architect devoting his life to killifish, a warm and friendly guy who loves to talk about killifish and keeping techniques. His strict ethic of fish origin and his refusal to stock more popular "plastic fish" turns a lot of customers away. The shop is his "fishroom". I visited him several times and listened to his stories. Later, I met other killi keepers around Europe, and found a rich scene on the internet.
What intrigued me was the complexity and level of involvement with what appears to be an insignificant fish species. Then I found the Jim's Basement Floor anecdote, and started to remember fragments of literature I read. A story by Polish SciFi writer Stanislaw Lem, describing a planet where the government decided that the fish was the most noble state of being, so the water level is raised a little every year. Or various books where someone travels to the jungle, it starts to rain, and "suddenly there are fish on the ground".
I started to wonder if these fish are quietly infiltrating culture - on a grassroots level in people's basements, in stories suggesting a merging of people/fish habitats. This links to the discussion of a possible end of biological evolution - the new evolution being cultural, the new fitness parameter being adaptability in culture. I was wondering if I, an artist, could bring something new to the killifish scene, but also infiltrate the killifish scene into the art community, to push the killifish even further into the realms of culture, using strategies from both science and art.
I was also intrigued by the existence of a killikeeper community. Who are they? Is there anything that sets them apart from other fish hobbyists? Did they give you any feedback about your Killifish art projects?
The people I met are all professionals in different fields. They are spread around the globe, communicate via internet, send eggs to each other via airmail, and sometimes meet at conventions. Some of them make field trips to the tropics, looking for fish in puddles, ditches, etc. Specimens are brought home for breeding and preservation in the fishroom. This requires dedication and ingenuity - the fish are quirky, jump out of the aquarium, some subspecies are very short-lived and lay eggs that need to be dried and re-hydrated several times. The community is bristling with clever technical DIY solutions that enables maintenance of a large aquarium count, live food culture in the everyday home environment, ecological "balanced" aquaria, automation, etc. A major contrast to domesticated species from the aquarium shop.
After speaking to several killifish keepers, and observing their interaction with the fish, I get an impression of a special kind of relationship with nature. Not keeping animals as pets, decoration, utility or food, but bringing content and meaning to your free time by actively interacting with an animal population, shunning commercial products in lieu of Do It Yourself methodology. It is especially interesting to note their killifish breeding ethic, to preserve the population as close as possible to the nature form, the exact look and behaviour of the original fish in the puddle. The community arranges regular contests where keepers show fish which are judged specifically on the nature form criteria. In the case of some subspecies, the original habitats are gone. The preservation ethic allows such populations to continue their existence in somebody's fishroom.
I have received a lot of help and feedback from the killi community. When showing Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, local killi keepers helped to arrange fish and care for them, and the installation became something of a meeting place. Many are intrigued by my video films showing the killifish jumping behavior, which was common knowledge but never properly documented. These films attract attention from the art community, but also bring something new to the killi keepers.
The introductory text of the catalogue, written by Simon Delobel, explains that you gave your aquariums and fish to a shop because "keeping killifishes at home or in his studio would have meant losing the artistic aspect of his creative activity." Can you tell us the reason for that?
When working with a project, my artistic strategies are based on theoretical research, but most importantly to "walk the walk and talk the talk". In this case, I had to learn the methods of killikeeping by maintaining some populations in my studio, their way. I discovered that it was extremely interesting, and found myself wanting to try some new killifish species, different methods, contacting some guy i Canada to get eggs from a rare Rivulus type...
After about a year, my studio was filling up with aquariums - I was "bitten by the bug". This is very relevant to the whole story - the killifish seem to combine just the right elements of complexity and accessibility to create and maintain interest with almost anybody. After an exhibition in Spain, I heard that one of the personnel had started to keep killifish. So one side effect of this project has been to promote a specific and positive model of interaction between people and nature. But as an artist I need to retain objectivity, and so I gave all my killifish away.
Like some of your other works, this installation navigates between art and science. You asked for the advice of experts in various disciplines, read numerous articles and watched scientific videos in order to make your own as scientific as possible. Nowadays many people see art and science as two radically different fields. But what do they have in common for you? Why do you find that they can be intertwined? What does this intimate flirting with science (or amateur science) brings to your art practice?
There are many answers, not always coherent. In art school, I learned how to make things look like art, and art theory as an analysis tool for the work - there were no new media or art/science programs at the time. But artistic practice for me has always kept one leg in the process of discovery, both digital and wetware. In the 90's I participated in the generative graphics scene, which consisted of people publishing strange quicktime videos on the budding internet, projecting live graphics from laptops in artsy clubs, hacking video games to crash in an interesting way etc. This was very exciting and relevant stuff but the art world had no idea what to do with it, there were no proper contexts, and most of the material is gone today, the computers outdated, the operating systems deprecated.
I decided to abandon art theory as an anaysis tool for my work, and started to look for alternative artistic strategies. Having studied with conceptual artist Dick Raaijmakers in Den Haag, I started formulating projects that provided some kind of answer to questions. This in contrast to the common saying that "science provides answers, art provides questions". To provide answers, you have to look for them, which means genuinely trying to understand certain literature, formulating and recreating experiments, careful documentation and so on. And when embarking on a research journey, the mind has to be open for what comes out - the semiotics of the work don't always look like art.
Another strong component is Do It Yourself - I know scientists as discussion partners, but I prefer to work in such a way that I can do most of the initial work myself. This is one reason for plugging into communities, which often accumulate large bodies of informal knowledge of very high quality. Lately, I'm looking for ways to bring the DIY aspect to the audience as well. I'm increasingly considering the DIY aspect to be crucial to survival not only of art, but of the post-technological society, because it breaks down peoples dissociation with nature, science and technology, and connects them to the artistic experience.
For example, my Open Out Of Body Experience project uses recent science to let people experience an artificially induced OOBE, video game style, in a DIY format. The discussions that come from these sessions show an urgent need for problematization of the avatar concept, which recently cemented itself in our culture but whose morality has never really been discussed at street level. Or to take the point even further - if there was a DIY nuclear plant, Fukushima would have looked different today.
The art & science moniker is a buzzword that goes around right now, and I'm not sure what to make of it. I am an artist who tries to understand things going on right now in the real world, using methods which can also be found in the scientific tradition. The process of understanding leaves a trail of images, objects, videos and ideas, which I call art. I get the question all the time: is your work art or science? Good question, but I don't have a good answer without engaging into a long discussion about semiotics....
Does this project mark the end of your artistic relationship with killifishes or do you think you haven't quite finished exploring their world?
Returning to the nature form preservation concept of the killifish community, there is a tendency of aquarium bred species to become more beautiful. Not because of selective breeding by keeper (actually the keepers are very selective to prevent this). It's a principle in any species that relies on display for sexual selection - the more beautiful, the more visible for predators - which increases overall fitness. I'm planning a project inspired by the citizen science model which documents such change over several generations. Interestingly, a specific population from one subspecies of killifish seems to have abandoned display selection for another principle - forced copulation. Basically a rapist killifish. Further research is necessary to fully ascertain what's going on. But it's not certain if the research will lead me elsewhere. We'll see.