More notes from the second edition of Biorama, a symposium and workshop that invited artists and experts to share their views, works and discoveries about the biology of the underground. Andy Gracie kicked off the artists presentations with a compelling introduction to the mythological theories about the structure of the Earth and the civilization, often called the Agharta, that live inside it.
Let's get this straight first: the Earth is hollow and other societies live in there. Andy brought us to the cave in order to be closer to them. Modern science doesn't pay much attention to the theory of the Hollow Earth, or Agharta, but this has not always been the case:
Astronomer Edmund Halley (he of the comet) was fascinated by the earth's magnetic field. He noticed the direction of the field varied slightly over time and his theory was that there existed not one, but several, magnetic fields. In 1692, he put forth the idea of a hollow Earth with inner concentric spheres nested into each other and rotating at different speeds. According to Halley, the spheres were separated by different atmospheres separated these spheres, and each had its own magnetic poles. These inner regions were luminous and probably hosted other civilizations. He speculated that escaping gas caused the Aurora Borealis.
Mathematician and physicist Leonhard Paul Euler believed that there were two entrances to the Hollow Earth. One was in the North Pole, the other in the South Pole.
In 1947 Admiral Byrd would have given the first scientific evidence of a Hollow Earth. A "lost" diary reports that the explorer went on a mission to fly over the North Pole. It was not his first trip there. Actually, Byrd was the first person to fly over the North Pole in 1926. This second time, however, he discovered the entrance at the north poles and flew through the hollow earth where he observed other civilizations and enormous herds of giant mammoths.
Another expedition in 1956 would have located the second entrance in the South Pole. The U.S. government kept the discovery secret and didn't allow anyone to cross the pole anymore which, obviously increased rumors of a conspiracy.
Back in 1942, the Nazi sent their own expedition to find these openings that, according to them, would have lead to the land of the original Aryans and make alliance with them.
A photo from the NASA would be proof:
Satellite images do not display any existence of a hole in the Earth. What you get sometimes however is a black dot over the pole that only reveal an absence of information.
On November 25, 1912, the United States granted the patent number 1096102 to Marshall B. Gardner for "The Hollow Earth Theory".
Others "proofs" that this hollow Earth life exist have been put forward: certain birds migrate to the North, aurora borealis, anomalous compass readings in high latitudes, north and south, etc.
Andy invited us to participate to the symposium inside a cave so that we would be closer to the only creatures we know of that live below the earth's surface and are so completely independently from the sun that they die when exposed to light. These organisms are called troglobites. There are fish, shrimp, crayfish, bacteria, molluscs and insects.
The most intriguing of the troglobitesis is perhaps the proteus anguinus, or the olm. In Slovenia, a tourism industry exists for those who want to cathc a glimpse of the cave-dwelling creature. The olms are blind, yet have barely visible, regressed eyes covered by skin. Their body is covered by a translucent skin with two pink gills at the back of the head. Unlike other amphibians that metamorphose into an adult form, the olm retains its larval features, a phenomenon known as neotony (via).
Andy then explained us briefly Jakob von Uexküll's theory of 'umwelt', an organism's self-centered perception of the environment. Uexküll theorised that organisms can have different umwelten, even though they share the same environment. In order to be able to make sense of the world around, a creature would look in other organisms for a series of elements that carry some significance.
For example the tick's umwelt is reduced to only three (biosemiotic) carriers of significance: The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals + The temperature of 37 degrees celsius (corresponding to the blood of all mammals) + The hairy typology of mammals. That's how they recognize if they are in front of a mammal they can parasite.
While looking for online information about the phenomenon, i stumbled upon this hair-raising video that explains how spores from a parasitic fungus come to infect the brain and changes in behaviour of a jungle ant.
This is going to put me off mushrooms for some time. But back to the Umwelt. Jakob von Uexküll's theory of the Umwelt made him a pioneer of semiotic biology, or biosemiotics, a field that addresses the complexities of biological processes by studying the production, action and interpretation of signs in the biological realm. Some researchers have put forward the question "Do Does a robot have an Umwelt?" There doesn't seem to be any agreement on the answer.
Giambattista della Porta was an Italian polymath who lived in Naples at the time of the Scientific Revolution. In 1560, Della Porta founded a scientific society called the Academia Secretorum Naturae, one of the first scientific societies in Europe and their aim was to study natural sciences. The Academia Secretorum Naturae was compelled to disband when its members were suspected of dealing with the Occult as, at the time, it was regarded as blasphemous to reveal the secrets of nature. Della Porta was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V.
Andy Gracie drew a parallel between the Academia Secretorum Naturae and bioartists today who start their research in a DIY fashion. People like Garnet Hertz and Anthony Hall are amateur scientists who like to learn for themselves and uncover nature. Is it art? Is it science? Does it really matter?
Image on the homepage PBS.
Biorama 2 was a sequel of the one that saw us hike through rain and wind in Marsden Moor, West Yorkshire. This edition still explored new directions in art, science and technology but with a focus on the biology of the underground through the notion of umwelt developed by biologist Jakob von Uexküll and its influence on the development of biosemiotics by Thomas Sebeok.
The event, organised last month by Derek Hales from the University of Huddersfield and Andy Gracie, was described as follows: Using the underground of caves and mines and the organic life they contain as a form of parallel terrestrial biology, we develop a 'parallel science' through the study of extreme and/or 'removed lifeforms' and through the science of astrobiology. Biorama II will explore a rich contextual and conceptual background against which to investigate some of the outer (or inner) limits of terrestrial biology and strategies for life. Framing itself as a platform for exploring these and related imaginaries - via literary luminaries, various heretics and other visionaries of the underworld and the potential of life (immanent, alien, emergent and other) Biorama2 will stage a series of discussions, workshops and expeditions which will serve to examine how organisms living independently of sunlight develop a sensory and informatic relationship with their strange environments.
I couldn't attend the workshop but i greatly enjoyed the symposium. This time, Biorama's quest for exoticism brought us for a series of talk inside a cave. The programme was exceptional: Microbiologist Dr Paul Humphreys gave a fascinating talk about bacteria (all i knew about bacteria came from acne and toothpaste commercials so i was amazed to learn that bacteria can be grown to repair concrete cracking and marble monuments, it can also block pollution or indicate the industrial past of a landscape that today might look pristine, etc.), Andy Gracie gave a wonderful talk about the Hollow Earth and biotech artists as science amateurs (all the juicy details are coming soon), Agnes Meyer-Brandis was her usual quirki/awesomness, Oron Catts showed a new project likely to surprise those who would enclose Symbiotica in a biotech art box, Ulla Taipale told us about Capsula's adventure towards a total solar eclipse in Siberia and Anthony Hall gave us the lowdown on fish-human communication. The day finished with a truly moving sound performance by Joe Gilmore in a deep cavern.
I'll blog in detail some of the presentations over the next few days. But first, allow me to set the tone.
People there bake lovely cakes:
And cook other delicacies:
Now the cave was The Peak Cavern, which also bears the exquisite name of "Devil's Arse". Until 1915 it was home to Britain's last troglodytes, who lived in houses built inside the cave mouth, and made a living from rope making, while the depths of the cave had the reputation of being a haven for bandits.
Read also The Arts Catalyst's account of Biorama cave trip.
Haarlem is just a 20 minute train ride from Amsterdam. I was there a couple of weeks ago to see an exhibition called Green Revolution at Nieuwe Vide, a new art space located in an old industrial area turned into a hotspot for all kinds of creative practices.
Green revolution is an agricultural revolution of the 50's that encouraged the use of industrial and biological technology in agriculture. Not in order to create alluring black flowers but to feed nations. Today, some agronomists state that the Green Revolution has allowed food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth while others believe that it caused the great population increases seen today. What is sure is that the Green Revolution has had major social and ecological impacts, making it a popular topic of study among sociologists.
The exhibition Green revolution, which invaded the walls of the Nieuwe Vide art space until last June 13th, offers a broader, contemporary and decidedly darker take on the idea of a green revolution. The show brought together artists whose work investigates and comments on the current, complex and often hard to fully grasp mutations in our environment, whether it's the environment in its green and eco sense or more generally the new political climate. Some of the artists selected use or comment on man-made disasters, others bring about distressing scenarios of a future life, others investigate the field of biotechnology, opening up new perspectives and questioning the world we live in. That was a lot to take in in one go.
You make a simple phone call and leave a message. Your audio recording is automatically uploaded to an open online terror database, thanks to BIT's uphone system which enables any phone to act like a distributed microphone. The audio files can also be monitored, syndicated or remixed for your purposes. An audio accumulation of micro- incidents which individually may be inactionable but en masse could provide evidence for a definitive response.
The project is inspired by GFPixel, a static display made of fluorescent and non-fluorescent bacteria and created by Reinhard Nestelbacher and Gerfried Stocker. Unlike its precursor, bio.display would change its contents with time.
The display used using E-Coli bacteria that has TorA-Green Fluorescent Protein mutant 3* (TorA-GFPmut3*) added to it. The pixel of E-Coli can be turned 'on' and 'off' by changing the pH value of its surroundings.
Other works in the exhibition include Jon Ardern's project Design Solutions for Post-Crash civilization that stems from the discrepancy between the mounting body of scientific evidence that reveal the dangers inherent in continuing with our current lifestyle and the fear of impeding the current economic paradigm. His project is echoed in drama and aesthetic by Alice Miceli's photographies of Chernobyl's exclusion zone (check also the interview with Miceli, Chernobyl Project - Images of the Invisible).
I was also glad to see again Immolation, a video installation concerned with the use of incendiary weapons on civilians after the Geneva Convention and the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons of 1980. The U.S. have refused to sign the convention and make regular use of firebombs in the Middle East.
This video highlights the major war crimes of the United States involving these weapons on a ( macro) landscape level, and contrasts it with the damage done to the body on the (micro) cellular level. To reach the cellular level, the Critical Art Ensemble grew human tissue at SymbioticA, and using high-end microscopy shot the micro footage of skin cells dying by either exploding or imploding. In parallel, CAE shows film footage of present and past wars that have used immolation against civilian targets as a strategic choice for the sole purpose of terrorizing entire populations.
Green Revolution, curated by Emilie Oursel, closed on June 13th, 2009.
VASTAL, VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd., is a temporary research and education institute that Adam Zaretsky has created in Amsterdam following an invitation by the Waag Society. Zaretsky, currently artist in residency at Waag, will give lectures and workshops on Art and Life Sciences. The School was born with the objective of showing the public what it means to work both artistically and scientifically with living organisms and materials. VASTAL also aims to make this form of art-science accessible for a broader audience and invite them to discuss the ethical and aesthetic issues at stake.
The May session are dedicated to EcoArt. September will focus on biology and bacterial transformation in particular. November will tackle embryology, zoology and body art. There will be labs and courses on hybrid DNA isolation, discussions on ethical issues, non-human relation explorations, but also radical food preparations and field trips to the slaughterhouse, the pet store and the zoo.
People tend to divide the world into separate categories: ecology, food, non-human species, body, etc. If you try and mix them together (in practice or theory, for example by asking questions such as "Do plants have feelings? Conscousness?") , people get nervous. Yet the workshop is going to study these five topics one after the other and then mix blend together in the final session of the classes. I could only participate to the first day of the Eco Art session but i do intend to come back in September for the lectures and workshops on bio-ethic, bioart and DNA sequencing.
Tomorrow Tuesday 26, Andy Gracie and Brandon Ballengée are going to give EcoArt lectures at 20.00 at Waag. This is going to be good, take my word for it.
Adam started the workshop by a lecture, reminding briefly a few points:
Adam recommended the reading of an essay he wrote back in for the CIAC's magazine dedicated to Bioart. See also the Live skype talk he gave at the Retool the Earth conference in Brussels on October 2008.
That's it for the quick intro on bioart. Then came a few words about the topic of this month at VASTAL: EcoArt. EcoArt is just another name for a series of practices that exist for decades. They have also be known as ecovention, land art, earthworks, environmental art, ecological art, etc. A great place to get an idea of the breath of projects that can be labeled as Ecoart is greenmuseum.org. Adam named a few of his favourite projects. One of them is Buster Simpson's Hudson River Purge. The performance addresses the problem of acid rain with giant limestone antacid tablets which neutralize the pH of the Hudson River. The river is like a gigantic human organism suffering acid indigestion, only a big pill will alleviate its pain. However, no matter the size of the pill, the source of the problem persists.
According to the book, the biggest ecological threat of our time is mass extinction of animal species caused by humans. Recent discoveries in conservation biology call for wildlands networks instead of isolated protected areas. The final section describes specific approaches for designing such networks (based on the work of the Wildlands Project.) A first step would be to re-introduce African and Asian megafauna in western North America - that includes lions, elephants, cheetahs, and camels- to create a facsimile of species that disappeared from the continent some 13,000 years ago. These large mammals need to roam and the parks and natural reserves humans have conceded them are clearly not sufficient. They need to get out of the borders. Wildlands Networks proposes to connects the parks together through corridors accessible for non-humans. Areas of shared use by humans and wildlife would have to be implemented as well as animals will inevitably run into shopping malls, golf courses and railways while migrating from one wild areas to another. We need to de-program ourselves from our own culture in order to be able to deal with this new kind of living conditions.
For the hands-on part of the course, Adam teamed up with Theun Karelse from FoAM & FoAM Lab Amsterdam. Our assignment of the day was to create sculptures made of earth, fertilizer, clay and seeds and distribute them throughout the city of Amsterdam.
The workshop is in fact inspired by the practice of seedballing that aims to return native and often vanished flora species to cities and suburbia. The most eco-friendly version of seedball, developed by Masanobu Fukuoka, consists in mud-and-clay balls that contain a mixture of organic compost and different seed species meant to complement each other.
We set up our working space right in the middle of the organic market on the Nieuwmarkt.
Adam, Lucas and Lipika from Waag kicked off their shoes and mixed the clay, fertilizer and seeds with their feet wine stomping-style while the rest of us started making sculptures and rolling little balls. Almost immediately people came to us, asking what we were doing, putting on gloves and helping us shape seed balls.
Once we had collected enough seed balls we went on a guerrilla gardening walk to spread them in the city in places where they might thrive. The workshop was actually a crash version of seedballing as the balls should be left to dry for a couple of days before being released in the urban wilderness. When the rains come, the mud and clay will break apart, exposing the seeds to elements that lead to their growth. In each location whichever seeds are best suited thrive in their protected mud starter-home.
The 'seedballed' sites will then be mapped by Theun and added to google maps of urban edibles.
The workshop was a great success, its simplicity attracted all sorts of passersby and the majority of them were happy to go pass the fun of seeing us getting covered in mud and enter a more in-depth and meaningful conversation.
Here's my flickr set of the event.
Second episode of the series dedicated to Medialab Prado's Interactivos? Garage Science (for number 1 press here), a workshop which mixed and matched software, hardware and biology and took place in Madrid a few weeks ago.
With Garage Laboratory, Andy Gracie (whom i interviewed back in the day when i was a diligent and industrious little blogger) wanted to examine the effects of electromagnet fields and radio waves on microbial species collected and cultured from the urban environment.
Using some DIY laboratory equipment, Andy's team developed a system of variable strength magnetic field generators and related apparatus which allowed them to observe the organisms as they were exposed and responded to various magnetic fields.
Can you tell us something about the cute micro-organisms you selected for the project? Why did you choose them? What have they done to deserve this?
Originally I planned to experiment with three different organisms; tardigrades, nematodes and magnetic bacteria. The project is based on and refers to the relatively new science of astrobiology and some species of nematodes and tardigrades have already been flown into space. It was important that the organisms used had already some connection with astrobiology or the general exploration of space.
Nematodes have been used to study how prolonged space flight can affect human aging, tolerance to cosmic ray exposure and muscular deterioration from weightlessness. They have always seemed quite poignant as they were the only living survivors of the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. The nematode canisters apparently hit the ground with an impact 2,295 times the force of the Earth's gravity.
Tardigrades are polyextremophiles, which is to say that they can survive a range of extreme environments or conditions and can regenerate after entering cryptobiosis. In 2007 some were packed on to a Foton-M3 spacecraft and exposed to the vacuum of space to test their ability to endure extreme heat, frigid cold, cosmic rays and deadly levels of solar ultraviolet radiation without air, water or food. On returning to Earth a large percentage of the animals regenerated and even continued to breed without showing any signs of harm.
The magnetic bacteria, Magnetospirillum gryphiswaldense, have magnetosomes in their cells with allow them to migrate along magnetic field lines. Recently, ultrafine-grained magnetite particles from a Martian meteorite, which resembled the magnetosome crystals of recent bacteria, have been cited as putative evidence for ancient extraterrestrial life.
In the end we focused on the tardigrades because they are, as you point out, the cutest. They are also fascinating creatures for a number of different reasons, which unfortunately for them will mean I will be forced to experiment on them in a number of different ways.
The project examines the impact of electromagnetic fields and radio waves on microbial species cultured from the urban environment. What did you find out during the experiments? Can we as human beings be worried about the effects of EMF and RW on micro-organisms? or are we just so much bigger it doesn't really matter?
The project was using magnetic field data sourced from the Pioneer and Voyager probes to generate corresponding magnetic fields inside the cultures of organisms. There just wasn't the time or resources during 'interactivos?' to study the results in any depth so we only made visual observations. When the tardigrades were first hit with strong magnetic fields they pretty much stopped moving and seemed to enter a sort of catatonic state. Normally after about an hour they would begin to move around quite freely again. I began to get the impression that the recovery time and the depth of shock was less each time, so maybe they were building up a tolerance. I really need to do some more work on that to be sure though.
There is still a lot of research being carried out on the effects of radio waves and magnetic fields on human health, and of course there is a lot of contradictory claims. It goes without saying though, that assessment of possible health effects from exposure to these kinds of fields is important because human exposure to such fields is increasing due to new and emerging technologies. Low frequency magnetic fields are suspected of being carcinogenic and an association is likely for breast cancer and cardiovascular disease, recent research has indicated that an association is unlikely. There also less well documented or medically researched conditions such as electrical hypersensitivity which are interesting.
In the animal world there is research into problems with migratory birds, bats, certain fish and insects, that are strongly dependent on magnetic fields for orientation or migration and also into sharks, rays and other fish that possess electric sense organs. Stress signals have been found in many plants that grow next to power transmission lines.
These associations are important as we immerse ourselves in an ever richer soup of radio and magnetic waves and fields and it is a relevant context for this project without being in any way its primary focus.
What was the biggest challenge you met with when developing the project and how did you overcome it?
I would say there was an accumulation of many small challenges rather than any especially big one - although lack of time became an increasing factor. Working late and drinking an inhuman amount of coffee went some way towards solving that one.
My work has always been on quite a large scale - even if i am working with very small organisms - so coming up with a device that would fit under a microscope was a new kind of challenge for me. Luckily I had a great set of collaborators and Marc Dusseiller, Georg Kettele and Martin Kern came up with some great hardware and software solutions which made the whole thing possible.
Using a form of silicone called PDMS allowed us to come up with some really cool devices that could contain the elecromagnets, other electronics and the organisms. It was a real breakthrough and has given me lots of new ideas about casting with resins and silicones as a way of building devices.
You mentioned during the presentation at Medialab Prado that Garage Astrobiology is part of a larger project. Can you elaborate on this?
Yes. I am currently developing a larger project of which the work we did at Medialab was just a small part. This project aims to use environmental data picked up from a wider range of deep space probes to allow me to create some form of corresponding environment within a range of different organisms which have some relationship with astrobiology. I intend to develop a way of getting meaningful data out of the reactions within the organisms and then use that data to generate a form of A-Life which would be hypothetically ideal for survival in deep space and alien environments. I am currently talking with the Deep Space Network and various people within NASA to see if I can get the live data directly from the space probes. I am also trying to develop connections with astrobiology labs to see if they can help me with getting information out of the organisms and with creating alien conditions on a budget.
As is usual with my projects it will be a combination of the functional and the dysfunctional, the utopian and dystopian. I like the idea of getting data from vehicles launched in the early 1970s, the time of utopian and romantic ideas of space exploration, and bringing them back to a current era of discussion where space exploration is a lot more pragmatic - a lot more 'down to Earth'.
Do you plan to push the project further? If yes, what would be the next steps?
That question is pretty much answered above. The project has a lot further to go and there is a lot of work to do. Thanks to the work we did at 'Interactivos?' I think the larger project has a much bigger chance of success and will go in some directions I hadn't originally intended. That's all good.
For other work I have some exciting new ideas about using new materials and new approaches to developing devices and robotics in conjunction with organic systems. And maybe even making work that is small scale. That would be quite radical for me.
Images from the Best of Astrobiology set.
Related: Interview with Antony Hall.
I can't think of any artist who manages to outdo Adam Zaretsky in the art of combining a somewhat comical approach with a keen reflection on the legal, ethical and social implications of new biotechnological materials and methods.
Zarestsky has co-habited during one week in a terrarium with E. Coli bacteria, worms, plant, fish, frogs, mice, flies and the lovely yeast. He has dedicated part of his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to playing Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits to fermenting E.Coli continuously for 48 hours and observing the impact the music had on the bacteria. In case you've never heard of this romantic singer, let me spoil your day with a video of one of his smashing melodies:
Zaretsky is a Doctor of Philosophy in Electronic Arts at The Department of the Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He's a bioartist, performer, researcher and art theorist whose work focuses on Biology and Art Wet Lab Practice. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world, including the MIT's Department of Biology, the Conceptual/Information Arts department at San Francisco State University, SymbioticA at The University of Western Australia and at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Integrated Electronic Arts Department.
As you might remember, Zaretsky teaches Vivoarts, an emerging and politically charged field that brings together art and biology, at the University of Leiden (NL.) The Vivoarts: Biology and Art Studio course explores the intersection between art and biology and discusses the many cultural issues involved in bioart -and more generally in the field of life sciences- through a blend of hands-on laboratory protocols, critical readings, and the production of contemporary artwork. The ethics of producing living art are debated and made more tangible and understandable by the use of living material/organisms into the class final projects.
I posted it last year already but in case you haven't seen it yet, here's 'Dangerous Liaisons', a short documentary on his class at Leiden University:
Zaretsky believes that we should "embrace our visceral and experimental mutant kindred. Life is not perfectionism. Life includes the open, onanistic and seemingly unacceptable faces of radical variation." As he states:
If I am a representative of any ideology, it leans towards appreciation of Full Breadth Genetic Alterity. If we are in the process of engaging in auto-evolution, then diversity, the inherent biological love of difference, implies that the human genome should be engineered with as wide a range of genre humans as there are art movements and swanky tastes in the world. Posthuman integrity is only guaranteed by an expanded aesthetics of anatomy, the more obscure the better... ! Let's alter our identity as a species by birthing versions of ourselves into every permutative potential of fleshbound imagination. Let's have a punk banquet of anatomy, a buffet of new senses, fancy new and multiple genital-orifice smorgasbords and the mad collage of multi-species brains. If we are to go this route, let's not start by being monocultural, paternalistic snotbags with assumed distinction ruling over the aesthetics of betterment. We must be done with the rhetoric of human enhancement.
I had the pleasure to share panels with Adam Zaretsky several times. The most recent was Media Art in the Age of Transgenics, Cloning, and Genomics, an event that the lovely rhizome people had invited me to curate. Now that i've finally recovered from the surprise he made us by starting his presentation with an extract from a biotech porn video he was working on, i feel that it is high time to 1. invent an opportunity to share another glorious event with him somewhere on this planet before it implodes 2. blog an online Q & A i had with him so that you can get to know him better. I focused this short interview on the work he has been doing in The Netherlands.
The experiments you describe in the video took place in the context of an avian embryology lab for non-scientists at Leiden University. How much knowledge did the participants have of biotech before they entered the lab room? What was their background? Does it take a long time before they can 'get their hands' into the genome?
The VivoArts : Art and Biology Studio Honors Class at Leiden was the first of its kind in the Netherlands. Since my class another Art and Biology Course has been taught at Leiden U. by Jennifer Willet and in April the third version will be taught by Boo Chapple starting spring 2009 (so sign up now.)
Thanks go out to Prof. dr. Robert Zwijnenberg of The Arts and Genomics Centre for investing time and brave direction to make these courses a reality and for organizing the breadth of disciplines being exposed to this sort of Bioethics Art Practice. The participants were from Art History, Sociology, Philosophy, Biology and even Theology... But, there is no Art Studio practice degree at Leiden U. so we put out the word and a few artists applied or just showed up.
The simple answer to your first question is, no experience is necessary. All Vivoarts labs are hands on labs for the untrained. I guess it's a sort of biology brut or outsider biology. Informed opinions on present-day and near-future bioethical conundrums are more readily coaxed out of non-biologists through a hands on approach. It takes time to get approval to teach non-professionals and students whose focus is not biology or bioethics. After clearance, the students can come in with zero experience and leave having made time-based, hybrid, new media, wet-lab, living arts pieces: transgenic embryo sculptures, GMO bacterial paintings and/or tissue cultured embryonic stem cell totemic fetish objects.
The difference between a technical scientific learning session and a Vivo-artistic laboratory approach is mostly qualitative. While engaging in the technics, we also deal with the relational issues surrounding this type of process: pain, death, responsibility, curiosity, the meddlesome sadism of a personal genetic footprint/signature/graffiti/, risk assessment between foreign species and the ecosphere as well as critiquing admonitions against the urge to fondle the folds of mutant love.
There were some reticent parties on campus. They claimed that they were worried their patients might be afraid that artists a la Moreau were treating them. (...) I think that the reaction to an art class in the lab doing 'important' transgenic embryology work in the name of non-utilitarian, 'frivolous' artistry reflects a fear of demystification of transgenic process. Is the fear of attention given to playful transgenic embryological research procedures limited to wariness to contend with animal rights advocates often knee-jerk responses? Or, is it because often enough, well-funded Transgenesis research is as equally 'useless' or has just as little chance of producing important data as a hands-on Transgenic Developmental Biology Embryological Sculpting Lab for Social Commentary. But, these balkers are University researchers. Why hide from eager students in a castle of learning? Transgenic human production is a contentious cultural issue that is in need of interdisciplinary research before it goes to market. If we want an informed public to help us gauge the eventual results of aesthetic human engineering, we need people with experience who have their own ideas about the process, the results and the price of genetic tinkering.
You mention in some of the written documents that plasmid injections were made with homemade tools. Hackers and amateurs around the world are experimenting with technology in a creative way as part of a broad DIY culture. Do you think that this DIY approach could apply to biotech art experimentations like the ones you perform? Where are the limits?
About half of my labs are 100% DIY. A lot of the Art and Biology crew are interested in the demystification of technology. The dorkbot skillshare mentality is more than a hot geek dating service. It's about showing that the technology, in this case biotechnology, is comprehensible and actuate-able with home brew strategies and some kitchen sterile technique.
For instance, the microinjectors for our embryology lab were made of glass pipettes pulled over a flame into small-bore needles. The plasmid was literally sucked up and hand pressed into the living embryos. We squirted into the embryos. The hope was that the microinjection needles were smaller than the embryonic nuclei and that, without microscopes, the plasmid would be injected or find its way into some nuclei for incorporation into the genome of the unborn pheasants.
This is not how an embryologist would work. The odds of success are already low without such haphazard application technique. Expensive machines are used to pull glass needles of the exact bore which will penetrate the nuclei of the organism of choice (mouse, rat, human, frog or fly embryos for instance.) Injections 'usually' occur through the microscope and XYZ microcontrollers guide the payload into the organism with finesse and acuity. Microinjectors cost over 100,000 euro and are not usually available to the general public (although I did use one at MIT to inject wasabi and cream cheese into Tobiko.
But less accurate methods like gene guns or direct injection of DNA are also used in today's gene therapy trials. These human trials, which may be producing germline alterations, emphasize the porousness of our collective genome. The history of embryology is built on cheap contraptions and closet incubators. Look at chicken breeders, both their social status and their successes. How many of them used strange feed or other 'pushing of life' techniques to make their prizewinning mutants?
So, I would say that persistence will outweigh the technological edge especially because no one has any idea of what life is, what the future holds and what the long term effects of even supposedly 'controlled' experiments will have on ecology, living being and the concept of species integrity. As far as I can tell, a tattoo gun with a single point needle dipped in the right plasmid concoction might be a great nano-transfectant for the lotek-biotech artist who still likes to draw. If it takes a lot of microinjections to get success when working blind... then gene tattooing is the way to go. (You could also buy a cheap microscope and improve your odds at least 30X.)
(Warning: Gene insertion may eventually cure cancer but right now it can also cause cancer. (i.e. Leukemia, see the case of Jesse Gelsinger).
Now, when it comes to DNA sequencing and plasmid design, this is just starting to be a tabletop possibility with cheaper sequencers and biobrick sets from the megaMaterialists over in Synthetic Biology. But, the learning curve is steep and can be expensive if you don't want to work with ready-mades. Designing your future pet's body plan or your own prehensile tail or an extra brain in your lovely daughter's derriere... that will take some trial and error. The effect is not just material. The genes are multifactorial. We haven't a clue as to what metabolism is. We can't even distinguish between enhancement and a living curse. But still, I'm hopeful.
The lab obviously triggered many questions and debates. One of them drew a thought-provoking parallel between animal research and animal sacrifice, a pratique which nowadays seems outdated and almost barbarian. I know that you are careful to comply with legal limits and are deeply concerned with the ethics of what you are doing and preaching. But did you mention this parallel between sacrifice and research in order to highlight the more sinister aspects of research? What are the most sobresalient points of the research/sacrifice debate that took place among the participants of your class?
First I wrote this:
Funerals Rites for Transgenic Pheasants: Rituals of Bio-Art Practice
Some artists are utilizing lab technique as a new medium to produce living and often mutant living art forms. As these 'sculptures' live and die, often at the whims of the artistic investigator, the personal, non-repeatable moments take on a ritual air. What kinds of rituals do interdisciplinary Art and Biology practices entail? How do they reveal the implicit rituals of science? What new performative rites come out of mixing ethics and esthetics in the laboratory? Scientists also have their methodologies of creative flourish and humane sacrifice. But, scientific and artistic play is often based on different paradigms of what the act of experimentation is. As artists learn laboratory technique, the rituals of science and new rituals of sci-art unfold, decouple and reconfirm magical thinking in both arenas. How does animal research relate to the history of animal sacrifice? What is the role of subjectivity in developmental embryology? Is transgenic protocol also a ritual for the cultural production of liminal monsters? And how does mutagenesis impede or coerce the imaginary in the lifeworld? Through an analysis of artists confronted with the responsibility of ending the life of transgenic pheasant embryos, (which they had altered with plasmids in the name of art,) I hope to show living rituals for new biotechnological processes as they are invented.
But to be more down to earth, this is complicated and needs regular talk too. First of all the students were guaranteed a good grade even if they choose to be ethical observers. So there was no pressure to be hands on. Secondly, methods of humane sacrifice were discussed even if the concept is an oxymoron. Legally, embryonic birds are not organisms in Europe. What they really are is unclassifiable, but they are not free living nor do they have fully developed nervous systems. So they are conceived to be dim or not fully on. They may be thought of as a group of cells on the way to becoming a full-fledged, free-living organism. For this reason, they do not have rights in any way nor do they have a single preferred humane sacrifice method. Actually, humane sacrifice is not a prerequisite in embryonic end of life issues.
Of the scientists I quizzed, the methods of sacrifice commonly applied were death by: autoclave, refrigeration, put down on ice or poured down the drain. I added to other options for my students: valium overdose or ritual sacrifice. The valium overdose was my idea of the most humane sacrifice for an embryo. It may have been the first time that an embryo was given such a respectful euthanasia. But, the ritual sacrifice option was wide open and I can tell you that we are still living in barbaric times.
Also, I offered to play executioner for my students. Often I had to not just respect their choices but enact them. It was a horrific part of the lab for me. But, I did learn a lot. I wouldn't dismiss the value of sacrifice in science, religion or even secular posthumanism. Some rituals were moving funerals about the traumatic pasts of the slayers. Some underscored visions of techno-obliteration, the War Machine (Critical Art Ensemble, see the first chapter of The Flesh Machine), which accounts for way too much of the world's economic and productive focus. Some of them were heartless and natural and sincere. One student's acts even inspired remorse for outsourcing an incineration. It is as if serial killing and bureaucracy were still strange bedfellows. All and all, the sacrifices were conducted in a responsible way even if they were non-utilitarian. The lab showed the range of human behavior when dealing with GMO snuff issues and unborn politics and it gave experience of the viscerality of transgenic process to the students.
Photo from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica
To be quite frank and honest, I am still in a strange state of being torn around these issues. I think abortion should be legal and believe in a woman's right to choose. Yet, I believe in embryonic isness: that there is something dignified about a developing organism. I am anti-war and think capital punishment should be abolished. I support some animal research as I have seen results that do help with disease. I do think the focus should be on AIDS and Malaria instead of prostate cancer and new cholesterol blockers. But it is not that simple. Often enough, I approve of experimental curiosity in general. I understand that we have a strange human gymnastic need to scope and poke everything to see how it 'ticks' or even just as pornography. I do think most biological research is just in-group magical empiricism but I also think that it is effective in a social cohesive sense. So, I guess I am old fashioned when it comes to ritual sacrifice even with a lab coat shaman behind the lab doors. Nonetheless, we humans could be less nationalist and provide global food, shelter, clean water, free rent and a 'work-optional' baseline to all humans. And, if you believe the news, many Bioart practitioners, myself included, lay claim to a sort of relational bent, attempting to go beyond anthropocentrism in the name of respect for the non-human actants of the earth. That is, many of us do consider all life to have an existential specialty which is their own and which is often superior to Homo sapiens narcissism in diverse ways of niche working and play. Yes, if we have it in us, we need to give back a lot of the land mass we have 'cultivated' on the crust of this planet to non-humans for their rights to freedom, space and daytime walks. But when it comes to embryos, I admit, I eat bunches of them on a weekly basis: caviar, eggs, raw seeds, grain, and bean sprouts. Being alive is a sort of hypocritical stance.
We cannot apologize to the organisms we use, even our flowers after death, because I doubt they would accept an apology. We cannot thank them, as some of the native peoples of the Americas still do, for providing us dinner or art materials, because I doubt they would say 'you were welcome.' In a sort of Taoist or Fatalist sense, we can try to welcome the hunger of the living consumers of our living and hence dying bodies (whether they be human, other animal, vegetable, bacterial, insectoid, fruity or fungal) as they come to feast on our inevitable temporary-ness, our becoming food for others. For this reason, I am anti-embalming and believe in green burials as we are just mulch in the long-term sense. In the short term we are entropic, greedy, sensual, hungry holes in need of sustainable release through passionate spectacle. (see my video Retool Earth.)
I often refer to this type of trial by fire lab as a Milgram Experiment without authority. I proclaim myself an amateur, I give the option to not participate and yet, when given the legal thumbs up, most people will do what they know is ethically tarnished. At the same time, fear of implication in the lifeworld, shame of causing death in general, while causing death, is more dangerous than modern primitivism. The Nobility of Neurosis (J.G. Ballard re/Search) is part and parcel to the Latourian concept of modern distinction as a farce. So, although I wish the Hague War Crimes Tribunal had authority over the nation I live in which has no respect for the Geneva Convention, the Nurenberg Code or the Declaration of Helsinki, fertile eggs are still a popular food particularly in green non-vegan circles. A well-made fertile egg omelette is no casual funereal ritual. Baroque and gourmet productions take time and the nuance and the taste is not lost on the pallete.
Just to underscore that I am thinking while acting the clown...
The fertile eggs were named during incubation. This is a list of their names:
One of your documents mention a project in Spain? Why Spain? And where exactly would you like to perform new researches? Can you tell us briefly what this project would be about?
Actually, I talked to Marta de Menezes of Ectopia in Portugal (another Bioart Residency to look into) and she said that Bull Fights, the Politics of Primitive Tradition versus the Elimination of any Appearance of Injustice and Bull Sperm Sorting for Breeder Profit (transgenic as all hell) were all popular pastimes in Spain. So if I was in Spain or Portugal, I might like to look for some off target mutations in the garbage bin of a major Bull Sperm Sorting outpost. Really, the FACS Bucket text was just an idea for a residency that ended up getting published in Portugal. Due to parenting responsibilities, I can't spend more than two or three months a year outside of the US. The WAAG Society and The Mondriaan Foundation have decided to host/sponsor a public course and performance over the next year in Amsterdam. I would also like to work on making more transgenic pheasant embryos so I can fine tune my imaging and maybe even discover something that might make a reductionist out of my otherwise sticky fingers. I am looking for more funding so send money people to Lucas Evers
Right now, I live in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Woodstock, USA. I am gearing up to initiate VASTAL: The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. I would prefer it function independently of any university so it would be obscure, DIY and edgy. But this would need a real budget even for a two-year planned obsolescence trip. I also consider pFARM to be conceptually ready to make the move to something more than a small collective. The Organic Biotech Fetish Farm has started to attract devotees and as a cult grows, so must its infrastructure. We are still accepting applicants on subservient grassroots level at this time. Although I have traveled widely, I ask myself which other nation is there that deserves the kind of lessons I mete out. I can smell the Ku Klux Klan hay in every corner of the world markets but the USA has taken Superpower-Slumlord to a new low. So, I figure New York is my tropical island in which to experiment with human volunteers and their gonads... VASTAL 2010 ... Know any strange hosts?
I wish i did. Thanks Adam!
In the news: Adam Zarestky is participating to the show Imagining Science that runs through February 1, 2009 at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Zaretsky and The pFARM Collective are part of the exhibition Corpus Extremus which opens in February 2009 at Exit Art in NYc. The book Imagining Science: Art, Science, and Social Change has won an award in the 2009 New York Book Show in the Scholarly & Professional category.