I don't review documentaries very often but 1. i should and 2. this one is about Joe David, a pioneer in the field of art and biotechnology. And so much more.
Trailer for HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS, a film by Peter Sasowsky:
Short Synopsis: Thirty years ago, a peg-legged motorcycle mechanic walked into the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. They had not returned his calls. The police were summoned. Forty-five minutes later he walked out with an academic appointment. Since then Joe Davis has sent vaginal contractions into space to communicate with aliens, encoded poetry into DNA, and designed a sculpture to save the world.
It's a great life for a man driven by imagination - except when it's not. No one pays him. He is evicted from apartments and labs. His uncompromising approach to art and life collides with the world's banal requirements. This is a story of self-discovery, sacrifice and the complexity of human endeavor, of the price of art and the ecstatic joy of discovery.
HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS is a 90 minute wonder: the movie manages to capture the chaos (or at least a significant part of it) inside the head of Joe Davis. Clearly, the film Director is like most of us, he is puzzled by half of what Davis says or does but that doesn't prevent him from appreciating and communicating the wit and depth of the MIT researcher, artist, thinkerer and scientist.
The first moments of the film might be unsettling if you've never heart of Davis or of the field of bioart but the movie fills you in bit by bit and the charisma of the man will do the rest. On the other hand, you can still expect a hell of a ride even if you've studied the work and thoughts of Davies. One minute, the artist goes on a 'trash night' in Cambridge next, he explains you how to insert messages into bacteria or how to distinguish the sound that a paramecia make from the sound that a stentor emits. After that he will marvel at ferns or cover a pretty Norwegian woman in honey for a performance that will transport sound on lightwaves and then remind you that astronauts are flushing toilets in outer space and that the matter is circling the Earth as you're reading these lines. We see him washing dishes in a bar like others do yoga, fight for a space to store his work, fight to get funding, fight to find a language that other people might understand.
The most disheartening moments depict the resistances he meets in the art world and the science world alike. Because if there's one man who can teach something to the many 'art and science' conferences organized all over the world these days, it's Davis. He is an artist as much as a scientist and he cannot really dissociate between the two like our culture does. The film shows how he moves back and forth between departments at MIT. He belongs to the biology, the art or the architecture departments but he doesn't quite fit in any of them.
The images alternate between snapshots of Davis life, archives documenting some of his most memorable works and family movies that show Davis as a kid and capture the faith that the '50s had in the power of science and technology.
The film has its lengths and repetitions but it illustrates quite convincingly Davis's belief that "The things that are the most sensible turn out to be most absurd and the things that are the most absurd turn out to make most sense."
If you're in London, don't miss the screening of HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS on October 1 and 2. The film is an official selection of the 2011 Raindance Film Festival, and is one of 5 films nominated for the jury award of Best Documentary.
Follow the facebook page of the film for news about screenings and related events.
P.s. Thanks Tamar for telling me about the film!
The competition for Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (DA4GA) invites artists and designers to team up with the Netherlands most prestigious Genomics Centres and produce new artworks in the field of sustainability, food, health, bio-informatics, agriculture, and safety. So far the competition was only open to people living, studying or working in The Netherlands.
But the good news is that the first edition was so successful that The Netherlands Genomics Initiative, the Centre for Society and Genomics and Waag Society have decided to open up their second call for application to artists and designers from any country. Three projects will be selected and awarded € 25.000 for the realization of the final piece. The only condition is for you to have graduated in the past five years. Application form and other info, this way please!
A few weeks ago, i was in The Netherlands to see the result of the first competition. You might remember that i had interviewed the 3 winning artists/designers just as they were about to start developing their projects (The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics) so i was curious to see whether the final pieces lived up to their (and my!) expectations. The show is up until January 8th at Naturalis, the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity which is located in Leiden, a short train ride from Amsterdam.
The best surprise for me was definitely the Microscopic Opera, developed by Matthijs Munnik in collaboration with Richard de Boer from the Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology. In this installation, the fluid movements of the humble lab worms C.elegans are turned into sounds and images. This tiny worm is used routinely as a model organism in research laboratories around the world. Its 'participation' to the artwork is particularly relevant to genomics since C.elegans is the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced.
A software tracks and converts the movements of the worms into various sounds that range from abstract opera singing to dynamic soundtrack of background sounds. The public can follow the activity of the creatures on a series of screens, they display the images magnified by the microscopes installed above the petri dishes containing each from 100 to 1000 worms.
Microscopic Opera could have been yet another 'new media art' installation controlled by a living being but, somehow, the modesty of the performers, the pleasant sounds they generate and the control and dignity they gain in the process made for a surprisingly moving experience.
The project that got most headlines in newspapers and blogs is 2.6g 329m/s, developed by Jalila Essaidi with the help of Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands. The objective of her project was to create a a bulletproof human skin, the kind DARPA would pay fortunes to get their hands on. Except that the project is first and foremost the trigger for a reflection about the many social, political, ethical and cultural issues concerning safety.
The rather unappealing result is a hybrid between spider's silk produced by transgenic silkworm and human skin cells:
In an interview with Neva Lukic, the artist explained why her project explores the concept, relativity and borderlines of safety: Safety is relative. You can use multiple layers of this skin but there will always be something else that can harm you. A nice example is made by Lucas Evers, the initiator of this project, who told me that before there were no safety belts in the car, the child was protected only with his father's hand and that was enough for the child to feel safe... The question of this work is also about the border. Scientists are also thinking about that. So it has to become accessible to the whole society. Just as safety is relative, so is the word bulletproof. For example, I have recorded two impacts of a slower bullet, the same caliber but with a lower speed. The bullets didn't pierce the skin, but in both situations they showed very different results. One of them got embedded in the ballistic gel, wrapped in the silk-skin, much like an arrow in the silk vest of a warrior during the time of Genghis Kahn would have done. The other one was on a piece of skin with more spider silk layers and the bullet got embedded in the skin itself and not all the way inside the ballistic gel. Two entirely different results, both being bulletproof.
Jalila has recently posted on her blog, the extract of Sam Gaty & George Costakis' upcoming A Documentary Film about Synthetic Biology. The short video below gives a quick overview of the work being done in a farm in Laramie, WY whereby spider silk is being spun from goat milk.
The third project is System Synthetics, by designer Maurizio Montalti in cooperation with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation. The ambitious work attempts to study the possibilities of production of the bio fuel out of the degradation process of the plastic waste using two fungal organisms. A first type of fungi would break down plastic waste, a yeast would then take over and produce bio-ethanol out of it.
(images Maurizio Montalti)
The final installation doesn't showcase the successful outcome of the project (the whole process would take years to complete) but it documents the intention, the experiments and points to the ecological burden that plastic imposes on our planet. There is a series of objects in a window that deconstruct the process from the moment plastic is broken down by men into smaller particles to phase when plastic waste would finally be transformed in an alternative energy source.
You might get a better idea of the whole project by watching this film:
The Casino de Luxembourg has, once again, put up an show worth a trip to the capital of the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je raises questions about the blurring of identity in contemporary society. I'll review the whole exhibition later on this week but in the meantime i'd like to single out a work i found particularly striking.
In February of this year, Art Orienté objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin) were at galerie Kapelica in Ljubljana to perform Que le cheval vive en moi (May the horse live in me), a bold self-experiment that aimed to blur the boundaries between species.
The French artistic duo has been exploring trans-species relationships and the questioning of scientific methods and tools for 20 years now. This time their work involved injecting Marion Laval-Jeantet with horse blood plasma. Over the course of several months, the artist prepared her body by allowing to be injected with horse immunoglobulins, the glycoproteins that circulate in the blood serum, and which, for example, can function as antibodies in immune response. The artist called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same.
In February 2011, having progressively built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign immunoglobulins, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.
Horse immunoglobulins by-passed the defensive mechanisms of her own human immune system, entered her blood stream to bond with the proteins of her own body and, as a result of this synthesis, have an effect on all major body functions, impacting even the nervous system, so that the artist, during and in the weeks after the performance, experienced not only alterations in her physiological rhythm but also of her consciousness. "I had the feeling of being extra-human," explained the artist. "I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.'
After the transfusion, Laval-Jeantet, perched on stilts, performed a communication ritual with a horse before her hybrid blood was extracted and freeze-dried.
Video documenting the performance:
As a radical experiment whose long-term effects cannot be calculated, Que le cheval vive en moi questions the anthropocentric attitude inherent to our technological understanding. Instead of trying to attain "homeostasis," a state of physiological balance, with this performance, the artists sought to initiate a process of "synthetic transi-stasis," in which the only constant is continual transformation and adaptation. The performance represents a continuation of the centaur myth, that human-horse hybrid which, as "animal in human," symbolizes the antithesis of the rider, who as human dominates the animal.
Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je remains open at the Casino de Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain through September 11, 2011.
Previously: The flying tree.
The exhibition Alter Nature: We Can, currently on view at Z33 in Hasselt, focuses on artists and designer's visions on the ways humankind has displaced, manipulated or designed nature and how this affects and modifies our concept of 'nature'. Some of the exhibited artworks embrace with enthusiasm this deracination and manipulation of what we call 'nature', others have a more critical take on it. Some rely on basic and quirky ploys, others call on the most scientifically advanced means.
A striking and simple introduction to the exhibition could be Driessens & Verstappen's Morphotheque. The dozens of artificial carrots of the most unusual shape are based on natural carrots that were rejected in distribution centres for not presenting the 'proper' size and shape of a carrot. The works reminds us that it was only a year and a half ago that European Commission abolished its ridiculous ban on 'imperfect' fruit and vegetables.
Morphotheque also refers to the fact that the now almost ubiquitous orange colour of carrots was a political choice. The Netherlands made it particularly popular in the 17th century as an emblem of the House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch independence. White, yellow, red, and purple carrots have long existed but they are now raised primarily as novelty crops.
The House of Orange was also at the heart of the Transgenic Orange Pheasant project. Adam Zaretsky wrote to His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander to propose him the creation of a "Royal Dutch Transgenic Breeding Facility" were orange pheasants would be bred and offered for the royal hunt. The exhibition features images of transgenic pheasants, an impressive genegun, the letter to Prince Willem-Alexander and two videos detailing the project. The manipulation of the colour of carrots doesn't raise an eyebrow but the creation of a pheasant of the same hue triggers more doubts and questions: how far can one go in the creation of a 'royal aesthetic'?
More about Adam's work in Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology.
In Common Flowers, Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara have reverse engineered a type of carnation that was already the result of genetic manipulation. Suntory Flowers genetically manipulated an originally white carnation into blue and sold it under the name Moondust. It was the first commercially available genetically engineered consumer product that was intended purely for aesthetic consumption.
BCL bought the blue flower and using do-it-yourself biotech, cloned it in their kitchen. They later released their cloned flowers into nature along with an how-to-clone manual on their website in order to raise questions of intellectual property and copyright in the realm of nature.
As i mentioned yesterday, the exhibition was rather cruel to trees.
Makoto Azuma' s Shiki 1 features a bonsai tree suspended from a metal frame. The tree represents of course nature. It has been manipulated for aesthetic reasons. The steel frame adds a second layer of artificiality, it represents the legal framework within which nature is manipulated, or to which manipulations must comply.
In 'Frozen Bonsai', a new work commissioned for the exhibition, Makoto sprays a bonsai pine tree with instant freeze and presents this in a transparent fridge. As the ice slowly drains the colour from the bonsai tree, the tree dies - but its beauty is preserved in optimal conditions.
Have a look at this video interview with Makoto Azuma about 'Shiki 1' and 'Frozen Bonsai':
Le Paradoxe de Robinson is a palm tree installed on a trailer. Once you're on the first floor of the exhibition space, you can see its branches swinging in the wind. A tropical tree lost in the Belgian grey Winter.
Tue Greenfort 's big "Wardian Case" protects 50 orchids. Wardian Cases were small greenhouses developed in the 19th century by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward to protect his plants from London air which consisted heavily of coal smoke and sulphuric acid. Wardian Cases not only made it possible for city dwellers of the time to keep expensive orchids and ferns in their home, they also prompted the commercialization of exotic plants: vulnerable plants could now survive the boat journey because they were protected by Wardian Cases. The invention has even been credited for helping break geographic monopolies in the production of agricultural goods, they allowed tea plants to be smuggled out of Shanghai and seedlings of the rubber tree to be shipped from Brazil to new British territories. Wardian Case were a means to - literally - displace nature.
Also part of the exhibition: Acoustic Botany.
Last Saturday i finally dragged myself out of the armchair and visited the PAV, the Parco d'Arte Vivente (Park of Living Art - Experimental center of contemporary art) in Turin. Although i was appalled by the utter wrongness of the 'interactive' displays i saw in some of the rooms, I'll be forever grateful to the place for bringing to Turin exciting artists. Michel Blazy, Andrea Caretto and Raffaella Spagna and now Brandon Ballengee.
In Spring and Summer the artist, activist and ecological researcher was in town for a series of field trips on the river Po looking for tadpoles and frogs.
The amphibians studied by Ballengee are praeter naturam, beyond nature. Because of pollution, parasites or predators, the frogs have morphological anomalies such as extra, deformed or missing limbs.
According to Ballengee, amphibians are environmental canaries in the coal mine. The state of this sentinel group of animals is rather worrying, they are not only declining all across the globe, they are also presenting increasing levels of deformities.
Missing or deformed limbs are caused by dragonfly nymphs. The insect rarely eats the entire tadpoles. Instead, they grab it, chew at a hind limb -often removing it altogether- and then release their prey. If the tadpole survives it metamorphoses into a toad with missing or deformed hind limbs, depending on the developmental stage of the tadpole.
However, scientists don't completely rule out chemicals as the cause of some missing limbs.
Images of the field trip Ballengee, scientists and members of the public made on the river Po near Turin where, unfortunately, they found a few specimens of deformed amphibians:
At PAV Ballengée shows a variant of Styx, a table where glass dish display specimens of "cleared and stained" deformed frogs. The body of each tiny frog has been preserved and chemically altered so that bone is dyed red and cartilage blue with remaining tissues transparent.
In the same room is a series of Malamp Iris prints, large-scale portraits of deformed frog specimens.
Also on view at PAV, the Turin Po River Eco-displacement, a portion of the aquatic ecosystem, small paintings made from polluted pond water, coffee and ash and two videos documenting Ballengee's field trips in the UK and in Turin.
Praeter naturam opens until September 26th, 2010 at the PAV, inTurin.
Art + Science Now - How scientific research and technological innovation are becoming key to 21st-century aesthetics by Stephen Wilson, Professor, Conceptual Information Arts Program, Art Dept. at San Francisco State University (available on amazon Uk and USA.)
Publisher Thames & Hudson says: In the 21st century, some of the most dynamic works of art are being produced not in the studio but in the laboratory, where artists probe cultural, philosophical and social questions connected with cutting-edge scientific and technological research.
Their work ranges across disciplines - microbiology, the physical sciences, information technologies, human biology and living systems, kinetics and robotics - taking in everything from eugenics and climate change to virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
Art + Science Now, the first illustrated survey of its kind, provides a dazzling overview of this new strand of contemporary art, showcasing the best international work produced since 2000.
Featuring around 250 artists from around the world, it presents projects from body art to bioengineering, from music and computer-controlled video performances to large-scale visual and sound installations, all of which challenge our assumptions about our relations with science, technology and the world around us.
Stephen Wilson summarizes the latest scientific research for the lay reader, and supplements his text with a reading list and extensive online resources, highlighting the museums, festivals, research centres and educational programmes that support this new work.
Art + Science Now is very different from Wilson's 2002 book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Its design is less austere. Its content, while solid and reliable, is less thorough but it is probably because Art + Science Now has a different publisher geared toward a broader audience. It is one of those rare book that manages to reach the elusive balance between information of the broad public and inspiration for the expert, whether the later belongs to the art world or the scientific arena.
The chapters correspond to 8 fields of investigation. The book bravely opens with Molecular Biology. Then come Living Systems, Human Biology, Physical Sciences, Kinetics & Robotics, Alternative Interfaces, Algorithms and the survey closes with Information.
Each and every introduction for the chapters is a real tour de force. The texts sum up in a clear language the latest advances in sciences and the complex issues that accompany them. The introductory text is followed by a presentation of dozens of artworks which engage with that particular area of science.
While the focus of the book is art, Wilson doesn't discriminate against works by designers and by artists who comment on science while using traditional media such as painting.
Art + Science Now is a great starting point for anyone wishing to expand their horizon, reflection, knowledge and critical view on the impact that current scientific developments are having on art and, more generally, on our culture. Highly recommended!
Just a few examples of works i've (re)discovered in Art + Science Now:
Since the catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger has been painting morphologically disturbed insects, which she first found in the fallout areas of Chernobyl. When she first published her watercolors in a Swiss magazine in 1988, scientists expressed their skepticism, insisting that the fallout in Western Europe from the Chernobyl accident was too small to cause morphological disturbances in insects.
She therefore did the same job around working nuclear power plants in Europe and found out that nuclear installations do cause deformities in insects, particularly Heteroptera leaf bugs, and are a terrible threat to nature. Hesse-Honegger discovered that risks of low-level exposure are insufficiently studied by scientists connected to government institutions and universities. She calls for truly independent studies -- from university scientists not dependent on government funding.
Mogens Jacobsen, Power of Mind 3
Mogens Jacobsen submerged a computer in vegetable oil while a galvanic battery powered by hundreds of potatoes drives a software system that suppresses most of the words in a text from a report about human rights in Denmark. As the potatoes begin to dry out or sprout the suppressed words and censored sentences will gradually reappear in the text.
This process is not visible in the gallery space, but can only be seen by accessing the system on the internet.
For her performance Wet Cup, Kira O'Reilly, placed warm glass sphere over cuts on her body. The cooling of the cup creates a partial vacuum and slowly extracts blood from the body.
Oliver Kunkel smashed a scientific looking glass box, containing HIV-infected mosquitoes at an art festival in Slovenia. The exhibition and surrounding area is evacuated, and the fear of infection among the local population is alarming. It is a work about fear, and human's lack of knowledge concerning one of the world largest and most widely recognized epidemic.
Inside the book:
Previously: Interview with Stephen Wilson.