Gilberto Esparza first appeared in the radar of bloggers a couple of years ago when he started colonizing Mexico City with Urban Parasites. Made of recycled consumer goods, the small robotic creatures explore the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. Under its quirky, amusing side, the project also had the objective of providing a basis for a critical exploration of the role that technology plays in cities.
Gilberto Esparza is currently showing one of his latest projects, Nomadic Plants, at Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón. Just like Urban Parasites, this new work is part of a series of experiments that aim to stimulate a critical discussion about the ambiguous forces wielded by technology.
Vegetation and microorganisms live in symbiosis inside the body of the Nomadic Plants robot. Whenever its bacteria require nourishment, the self-sufficient robot will move towards a contaminated river and 'drink' water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cell, the elements contained in the water are decomposed and turned into energy that can feed the brain circuits of the robot. The surplus is then used to create life, enabling plants to complete their own life cycle. As Gilberto wrote in our email conversation, "The nomadic plant is a portray of our own species. It also deals with the alienated transformation of this new hybrid species that fights for its survival in a deteriorated environment."
I'll quote the artist again, this time from a text included in the press material for the exhibition:
The fact that a new species, the by-product of those alienating processes, appears -merely by coexisting- in those areas of ecological disaster represents a manifestation pointing to the serious social and environmental impacts on communities that once depended on rivers, now the source of their ailments. At this point, it is important to highlight the ambiguous potential of the transforming power of the human species, due to its ability to destroy but also to restore. For that reason, what is required is a new way of thinking, which would position us as antibodies on the planet, and a proper understanding of the importance of living in symbiosis with our planet and with all species.
Extracts from our online conversation:
When i first read about Plantas Nomadas, i immediately thought about Archigram's Walking City because of the nomadic and self-sufficient qualities of Plantas Nomadas. But what was your actual inspiration? Sci-fi novels and movies? Ongoing research in laboratories exploring the possibilities of microbial fuel cells in robotics?
I have been researching and building autonomous robots that can survive in urban space, stealing the energy that the city itself generates. Later on, i found online some publications about research projects using microbial fuel cell. I was immediately inspired to develop a project that would engage with the issue of pollution in rivers. I visited El Salto Jalísco, a community very affected by this problem. I was therefore interested in making it the location of the intervention.
Can you tell us which kind of plants and micro-organisms cohabit inside the body of your machine?
The microorganisms that live inside the robots are identical to the ones you can find in the river. I prefer to use the plants that used to be native to the river before it became so polluted.
How has the public reacted to your work so far? Both in Mexico and in Spain?
People liked it a lot because the project opens many doors on issues such as our relationship with nature, the thin line that separates the inert and the living and also the directions taken by scientific research which, very often, respond to the interests of the current economic system.
The installation at Laboral features the robot but also a video of the process of its creation, a documentary showing the robot in action in the river Santiago, El Salto, Jalisco (Mexico), a series of photos taken by the artist and computers showing the project's webpage.
Plantas Nomadas is on view at Laboral, Gijón (Spain) until June, 7, 2010.
You know how some charmless and dull cities on the continent pride themselves with the title of "Europe's best kept secret"? I bet Luxembourg wouldn't dare to pretend to the label. The place is as charmless as a man wearing Ugg boots. Don't even get me started on their food. Yet, i keep going again and again to Luxembourg because of its edgy and exciting art offer. My last visit was spurred by the second chapter of the exhibition sk-interfaces at Casino Luxembourg.
Yes, i had already seen sk-interfaces. Exploding Borders in Art, Technology and Society at FACT in Liverpool but the Luxembourg version, i was told by friends, is bigger, bolder and even better than the first one. They were right. Several pieces have been added to the show. The performances are extremely well documented and there is a corner to watch videos. The space itself is kinder to the artworks. There's even extra drama as the poor Victimless Leather (A prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific 'Body') garments had caught some disease on their way to the Casino and were slowly eaten by decay.
It's as if the first exhibition in Liverpool had been a superb rehearsal of this one.
Curated by Jens Hauser, the exhibition sk-interfaces presents some 20 artists who question the ways in which today's techno-sciences alter our relation to the world: digital technologies, architecture, tissue cultures, transgenesis, self-experiments or telepresence - the artists appropriate these methods and explore the permeability between disciplines and between art and science. Their interfaces connect us with different species, destabilise our definition of being human today and reflect on the question of satellite bodies. Oscillating between the physical and the metaphorical, the political and the meditative, the utopias and the dystopias, the exhibition invite us to reflect on how we are perceiving the shifts brought about by technologies, some of which we might not be as familiar with as we ought to.
One of the best surprises for me was to discover that the Critical Art Ensemble was not only showing Immolation but also a video i was very curious about: Marching Plague (little did i know, until the press person at Casino told me so, that the video is also available for online viewing.)
Critical Art Ensemble's film puts into a highly skeptical perspective UK-US bioweapons research and the paranoia surrounding bioterrorism. In the video, the CAE and some volunteers follows the steps of Operation Cauldron, a series of biological warfare trials conducted by the UK governmentoff the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1952. These secret trials investigated whether germs could be used as a weapon for ship-to-ship combat. Their tests found that germs were as unreliable and unmanageable on the sea as they were on the land.
The film humorously demonstrates that the public's fear of "bioterrorism" is not only based on incomplete awareness of the facts but has also been exploited by governments to justify the creeping costs of biological warfare programmes. Money which could otherwise be dedicated to the fight against existing or emerging infectioius diseases.
inthewrongplaceness is an intimate performance that Kira O'Reilly developed on her return from a residency at SymbioticA in 2004. The impact of working with pig's tissue in a lab setting instigated her thoughts on the similarities between the pig's skin and her own. By inviting members of the audience to approach one by one and touch both her own and the skin of a dead, nonhuman animal, O'Reilly encourages visitors to engage with the complexities of the relationships between skin, touch and species. The artist also explained in an interview: It was also very much influenced by a book called Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq, about a woman who turns into a pig. She spends quite some time in the middle of the text oscillating through in between stages, neither entirely one nor the other.
I didn't see the performance but it seems that it took place in a room that is part of the exhibition. On the walls and on the floor are props such as flowers, taxidermied birds and corpses of small animals in formalin.
Plage d'hiver ("winter beach") grabs all our senses with a physiological reconstruction of a beach. A skyline of ultraviolet light along with the dark glasses visitors are recommended to wear upon entering the 'beach room' and a cloud of iodine project our body to another latitude, another a season. We breathe the effluvium of the marine aerosol and our skin reacts to the UV-a rays. Rahm has reproduced the angle of sight corresponding to the reflection of sunlight on water which reaches the retina from below as if in duplicate.
Plage d'hiver translates the ubiquity typical of modernity, where seasons are adrift all year long, to the point of overlap in a sort of perpetual spring; a modernity where night and day merge in a white luminous light, diurnal and nocturnal alike, and where distances are reduced until they, too, overlap with the immediacy of globalization.
Antal Lakner's Passive Dress - Double Gravity Suit is a suit ergonomically fitted with weights that make its wearer perceive 1.5-2 times the normal earthly gravitation weight. The mere attempt to keep a normal posture, to stabilize the body or make small gestures becomes a slow-motion meaningless fatigue. The suit challenges men to maintain one of its unique characteristics: we are indeed the only ones among the vertebrates in having a completely erect posture.
I'll end with a couple of images with my favourite artwork in the show: the Roadkill Coat that the members of Art Orienté Objet stitched using the fur of small animals they found dead by highways.
sk-interfaces. Exploding Borders in Art, Technology and Society is on view at Casino Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain until 10 January 2010. Photo on the homepage: Axel Heise.
One of the rules of this blog is never to make announcements of events. Every rule comes with its exceptions... The November programme of the VASTAL workshops and lectures is out!
The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. is Adam Zaretsky and Waag Society's temporary research and education institute on Art and Life Sciences. It's free, open to the public and i hope you'll allow me to remind you how much we enjoy them:
Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop
Wednesday 11 November
Body Art Lecture with performance artists: Kira O'Reilly, WARBEAR, Jeanette Groenendaal and Boryana Rossa.
Thursday 12 November and Saturday 14 November
Body Art Lab which, i'm told, will involve blood and sex performances in the Glove Box. "Various performance artists will be ritually cleansed and enter the glove box one or two at a time. Various performance artists take turns in the box interacting with the public or other actors reaching into them with the gloves. This is experimental Body Art with a biological theme that references experiments, lab animals, the pure and the impure as well as the distance (or presumed distance) that objectivity implies. "
Tuesday 17 November
Animal Personality Art and Science Lecture and Lab with Dr. Kees van Oers or one of his colleagues and Koen Van Mechelen.
Dr. Kees van Oers studies the genetic background, physiology and fitness consequences of variation in avian personality. In 2005 he obtained a personal VENI-grant to study the evolutionary genetics of personality using a linkage study in a natural population. This work is currently extended in collaboration with the Animal Breeding and Genomics Center in an NGI-grant on songbird genomics.
Koen Vanmechelen is a Belgian conceptual artist whose work engages with issues of genetic manipulation, cloning, globalisation and multiculturalness. The artist is currently working on The Cosmopolitan Chicken project, an experiment to develop a super-hybrid chicken.
Koen Vanmechelen's The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project chickens will be installed from Nov 5 to Dec 6 at the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in Amsterdam. Vanmechelen is also having his first solo exhibition in a U.S. gallery at Conner Contemporary Art in Washington.
Featuring live chickens, the exhibition also includes taxidermy and blown-glass sculptures, video, and photography, as well as drawings and paintings in tempera made from eggs laid by chickens bred by the artist.
I never do event announcements on this blog. I guess that would make some people happy but i can't find the time to blog about every single event i'd like to share with you. I'm not even sure my blog is the best place for that so i'd rather make exceptions to my "no call no announcement" rule once in a blue moon. Here's this semester's exception.
The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. comes back to town in September and this time the focus will be biology and bacterial transformation. VASTAL is a temporary research and education institute that Zaretsky has created in Amsterdam following an invitation by the Waag Society. The lectures and workshops aim to show 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.
Sadly i can only attend the September 15 sessions but i hope you'll overcrowd the school. Here's some details that Adam Zaretsky kindly forwarded to me:
Friday 11 September - Alt-Biology: Solar Transgenics, Synthetic Biology, Nanotech Biomimicry, Post-Natural History and Green Biofuel
Huub de Groot is a Professor of Biophysical Organic Chemistry at Gorlaeus Laboratories, Leiden University. His research on producing Solar Biofuels from Microorganisms has consistently been focused on appropriate and sustainable hi-tech replacement of fossil fuels. By engineering green bacteria whom can collect sunlight with high efficiency conversion to chemical energy, we may have a source of cheap, clean and ubiquitous energy. While working with plants and algae Huub is also interested in engineering carbon nanotube latticeworks of super bio-solar battery structures which mimic the very efficient light harvesting 'antennas in disarray' found in green bacteria. As a possible infection/effect of Huub's continued collaborations with Rob Zwijnenberg (art-philosopher) of The Arts and Genomic Centre and the artists in residence, which his lab welcomes, Huub has proposed a Genetically Modified Solar Transgenic Art-Sci fish project intended for collaboration and future research.
Richard Pell, a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon is one of the founding members of the Center for PostNatural History. Rich will speak about the Center's investigations into the geographic placement of transgenic plants and animals and the cultural and ecological effect on their cartographic areas through such museum displays as Transgenic Organisms of New York State and Strategies in Genetic Copy Prevention. Rich will also speak about Synthetic Biology and his role as a iGEM Judge.
Tuesday 15 September - Tissue Culture Lab
What does it mean to grow disembodied cells from a former organism? Why do people want to keep samples and parts of beings well fed and free from contamination? How is a cell line kept alive and healthy after isolation from the living or the dead? This is a hands-on wet lab for public practical and experiential tissue culture technique. We will isolate primary tissues (bone marrow, scar tissue, muscle and, possibly, embryonic stems cells) in a sterile hood and then incubate them separately from their original corporeal context. The emphasis is on zombie fetish rites versus the general living rights of the undead vampiric matrix.
Growing Politics: Tissue Culture and Art meets Urbanibalism
Oron Catts is co-founder and director of SymbioticA will speak about the politics of tissue cultured artworks also known as semi-living extended body artworks. With such challenging projects as Victimless Leather, Semi-Living Worry Dolls and Disembodied Cuisine, Oron continues to challenge conventional readings of tissue culture as well as the general culture of eating, using and explaining life politics.
Matteo Pasquinelli is a writer, curator and researcher at Queen Mary University of London. He wrote the book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (2008) and edited the collections Media Activism (2002) and C'Lick Me: A Netporn Studies Reader (2007). He writes frequently at the cross of French philosophy, media culture and Italian post-operaismo. His current project is a book about the history of the notion of surplus from biology to knowledge economy and the environmental discourse. In Amsterdam, together with Katrien Jacobs and the Institute of Network Cultures, he organized the Art and Politics of Netporn conference (2005) and the C'Lick Me festival (2007).
Matteo will be presenting "Parasitic life, fermenting yeasts and cybernetic DNA: The art of living matter versus biodigitalism." Before the discovery of DNA, chromosomes were considered containers for an obscure fermentation activity. Today biotech hobbyists have reduced 'life' to a predictable copy-and-paste of numeric codes. How does the so-called bioart cover the parasitic and decaying process at the basis of life and the negative entropy of the cell that was discussed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1944 together with his prophetic hypothesis of a genetic code? Matteo Pasquinelli shows how there is more know-how in the most ancient practice of fermenting ambrosia than in contemporary bioart.
Saturday 19 September - (De)Mystified DNA: Sequencing Lab
Join us for the random creation of a sequence of DNA. This lab is about understanding the Genetic code and the online freeware available to 'read' DNA. Our sequence is arrived at through chance. We will then creatively explore software options like BLAST for finding where the random sequence is already embedded in the genomes of sequenced nature. We will also explore the online tools of plasmid design including DNA text to flesh online ordering and the anatomy of a DNA sequencing machine. As a group we will arrive at a symbolic reading of our chance strand of potential life alteration. Discussion in risk assessment in both chance based and knowledge based systems of hereditary difference production.
(This is not a Wet Lab)
Registration is possible via info at vastal dot eu. There are limited number of places available, so be in time! All courses and lectures will be in English.
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.