Last week i flew to one of my favourite cities, Liverpool, to visit the Sk-interfaces exhibition at the FACT art center. The show, curated by Jens Hauser, explores, materially and metaphorically, the concept of skin as a technological interface.

A controversial new exhibition on display in Liverpool showcases real skin tissue in sculptures wrote the BBC news website. Yet every single person i spoke with during the 2 days i spent in the city didn't seem to find the show controversial. Interesting, surprising, fascinating, challenging, thought-provoking, worth bringing my mum, etc. That's what i heard but no one i talked to seemed overly shocked nor disturbed.

There is material to cause quite a stir in sk-interfaces but Liverpudlians seemed to be more concerned by the issues brought to light by the artists than by the potentially seditious or "freaky" character of the works on show.

I'll start the blog visit of this multi-disciplinary exhibition by walking to the second floor of FACT.

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Critical Art Ensemble, Immolation. Image courtesy of the artists

Immolation is a video installation concerned with the subject of 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 USA have refused to sign the convention and they make regular use of firebombs in the Middle East. Not because these bombs are the most efficient (they are not), but because they act as moral crushers, tapping on people's visceral fear of being burned alive.

This video chronicles 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 accomplish this task, the Critical Art Ensemble (a collective of tactical media practitioners who explore the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism) grew human tissue at SymbioticA last year, 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.

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Critical Art Ensemble, Immolation

The result is a video where war crime are shown at both the micro and macro level but which skips the human level. Yet you still manage to view your own body in the narrative. The video is made even more unsettling by the absence of sound, it's just silence and destruction.

The goal is to provide a different way of imaging, viewing, and interpreting the human costs of these war crimes, in contrast to the barrage of media imagery to which we have become so desensitised. The video portrays what CAE calls an "ecology of crime."

CAE felt that as long as warfare would be at the center of the Bush agenda, they had to come up with new connections and find venues to show their work (since the arrest of Steve Kurtz some US administrations are feeling the pressure).

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Right next to Immolation, is Truth Serum, a work that responds to the lawsuit against Steve Kurtz and their persecution of Critical Art Ensemble in the USA, which marks an ever-increasing creep of the security state into the nervous system of culture.

For Truth Serum, The Office of Experiments, initiated by Neal White, follows research on serums used historically by official authorities in interrogation processes as a means to obtain information without using torture. The effects of truth drugs were first examined in the 1920's, and heavily used by the CIA during the Cold War. The present artwork echoes the debate around art's freedom in the fear and increasing security regime that has emerged after 9/11, while drawing on the cultural history of so-called truth drugs and recent discussions about their use in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

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Scopolamine, an ingredient used in truth serums (image courtesy of Neil White)

The use of truth serums is actually illegal but after 9/11 there have been talks (mostly in the press) of using the method again during interrogations by the FBI and the CIA, even though truth serums are more an art than a science.

The installation at FACT combines a space concealed behind a white door and a series of video works that reflect on the aesthetics of terrorist messages, using a dark clown as an anonymous spokesman who reflects on the possibility of carrying out mass self-experimentation with truth drugs as a form of self-defence.

On 29 March 2008, volunteers will be able to participate to the performative part of the Truth Serum installation in support of freedom from artistic censorship.

In a central (and still secret) Liverpool location, participants will willingly submit themselves to a short psychological experiment based on substantiating Truth lasting around 10 minutes. The aim is to probe an atmosphere of paranoia spreading since 9/11.

More information to participate.

My pictures and FACT pictures.

sk-interfaces is on view until March 30 and launches FACT's Human Futures programme which includes 3 sections - My Body (SK-Interfaces), My Mind and My World, each one hosting a major exhibition, conference and research focus. You can follow its development through Human Futures blog.

Related: They make art not bioterrorism, Jens Hauser's presentation in Aix en Provence (part 1 and 2.)

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Antony Hall's projects explore the way we interface with technology, and how our interactions with it influence us creatively and socially. Often collaborating with scientists and technologists, Hall is currently focusing his talent on the investigation of biological and physical phenomenon. Some of his recent experiments involve communication with an electric fish, the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears and training Planarian worms.

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He gained fame in the media and media art festivals with his electro-acoustic sound art devices and performances. Together with Simon Blackmore and more recently Steve Symons, Hall is a founding member of the Owl Project, a group which combines woodwork with electronics to create performances, musical instruments (iLog , and Log1k) and other physical computing projects.

Let's start with one of your most popular projects: the iLog. How did you get the idea of making it?

0aa4ailllog.jpgThe iLog was created as collaborative project with Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons, we are the Owl Project. We developed the Log1K in 2001 as a performance tool to attempt rival the laptop in electronic music, shortly after this apple started pushing the iPod and we had to make a response, something which related more to the trend for portable, mobile hand held technologies. We wanted our devices to be a synthesis of craft and technology, as well as functional instruments. The Log1ks were getting increasingly heavy, among other things they used nearly 30 AA batteries, short circuits and fires, and blown-out speakers were becoming common place. iLog 01 came out in 2003. After we started collaborating with Steve Symons, we reinvented the electronics inside the iLog and started pushing the whole project to a new level; the M-Log is out later this year.

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There's now a series of iLog models. Why do you think people buy the iLog? Mainly as a beautiful and quirky piece of art which they would not use too much fearing that it might be damaged (although you provide technical support.)? Or have you found that people use it extensively as any other kind of musical device? Were you expecting your project to have so much success?

I suppose people want the iLog for its quirkiness, something as an alternative to the mass produced items. We had no idea that it would become so popular - people blogged it like mad at the start and like a Chinese whisper it suddenly became what people wanted it to be; typically some kind of alternative to the ipod - But in reality its something quite different. It is intended to be an instrument for performance.

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iLog signal

Our problem is that although there is demand; making them is still very difficult, and time consuming, so our focus is making them better rather than faster. At the moment we are looking at lending these to artists and working in collaboration to develop the iLog further. When we launched them for sale in London at DWB it was a real learning curve. Simple things like which way up it should be held, were completely un-obvious! We had to create extensive instructions regarding use, as well as repair and maintenance. The 24 hour support is most necessary! Its important that its more hands on than your average mass produced plastic device.

The iLog is something people can use, rather than living all its life in the art gallery. The new series, *M-Log, launching this year, looks like an iLog, and is a USB connective interface. So there is scope for programming your own sensor based instrument, which you can use with your own customized patch. The iLog is more of a stand alone sound generator. We are planning an event in Manchester during Futuresonic where other performers (including Leafcutter John) will be using the iLogs & M-Logs. *The M in M-Log stands for 'muio' as in "muio interface", the chip based interface inside which Steve's invention in his words "The muio interface is a modular system for sensing and controlling the Real World".

The wood is quite resilient and very repairable if damaged.

I love The Sound Lathe, a performance which explores the sonic properties of wood. Do you have any video of it?

There is some video here:

It does look like a very physical performance. Did you have to master new skills in order to be able to do these performances? How does each performance go? Are they all different from each other? Does working with wood creates situations and results you wouldn't have expected?

Yes its been really interesting - my self and Simon ended up sleeping in a kind of bivouac deep in the forrest as part or the "R&D" for the project, learning the skills of traditional "green woodwork", (electricity free) with Mike Abbott, master crafts-person. Mike invented a competition for Bodgers (the name for people who use the 'pole Lathe') called 'Log to Leg' (as in chair leg) so this is the new format for our performance - I think the record is 9 mins; transforming a bit of tree stump, into two perfect chair legs! It takes us a couple hours, but then our lathe is connected to copious amounts of sensor interface technologies. Quite a distraction, if like for our last performance at Lovebytes, it rained torrentially for the whole thing. In the documentation you will see a tarpaulin underneath that are 3 laptops and Simon.

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Image Lovebytes

I think for all of us it's a welcome change from sitting behind a screen the whole time - these physical processes are a great compliment to programming and electronics; and they still require a similar kind of focus and discipline. It is quite exhausting, you need a lot a focus to keep the beat in time as well as make a good carving, in this way it becomes quite mediative. Sharpening the chisels and preparing the timber are all equally demanding skills to learn.

Can you tell us something about the wooden objects produced during the performances? Which kind of objects are there? And what do you do with them once the performance is over?

We have a box full of various objects; ranging in description from 'chair leg' to 'fire wood', or specialist 'rolling pin'. Occasionally we have a look inside & discuss what we should do with them. We did make a chair with Mike about the only truly useful thing we ever made. The latest idea is to make some kind of flat pack, or player. Watch this space. You can see what we decide to do with them at The Piemonte Share Festival, 11 - 16 March 2008.

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Documentation of first ENKI event at the Museum of Science and Industry Manchester, 7th October 2006

You are also interested in bio-digital medicine. That sounds very different from a project like iLog. Can you explain us what it is and how you started to be interested in this field?

Well this is my own personal project, although I have always working with biology or technological experimentation in some way; with ENKi I decide to humanize what I do. This was a decision to move into medicine and treatment technologies. Really its the same things that we work with in the owl project; looking at how technology is consumed and sold. The notion of bio-digital medicine is just one example in hundreds, of how science, or even the suggestion of science is used, and misused to sell ideas. Faceless corporations feed on our anxieties, our basic need to feel contentment or feel complete. I find it interesting that, just as some people turn to religion, others will look to technology or science to provide answers and solutions.

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ENKI uses the bioelectric information from an Electric Fish to trigger human Brain-wave Entrainment. It generates sound and light pulses to induce a state of relaxation similar to the way traditional relaxation systems work, but the electric communication signal comes from an electric fish rather than a chip.

Did you test the system on other people? How do they react?

So far we have tested it on about 40 volunteers,most of them members of the public who had no prior knowledge of the project. We did this in the context of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry; people enjoy the experience generally. I was surprised at the range of people who were up for it!

By this point I had started working with Greg Byatt as a collaborator. He has experience of using this kind of technology and administering similar treatments professionally. Greg has equipment which can monitor your physiological state and a brain-wave visualiser (EEG); we were trying to measure results this way. We only really came to one solid conclusion. We had to do more tests.

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Isn't the idea of putting one's "brain-wave entertainment" into the fins of an animal scary? Do you feel that people would trust any other electronic device more than a fish or any other type of animal?

That is a good question. It's an exciting notion this whole idea of "wet-wear" interfacing - but not something that should be taken lightly. I don't like to be on my own if i am doing a test run, and yes I find it very unnerving. I never quite got used to the idea of connecting strangers up to electrodes and the fish. I also worry about the fish. The fish needs to be content and 'happy' for this to work.

In my opinion that most of these commercial devices are made by various humans all of whom have different intentions and issues, namely cost efficiency; and so effectively using quite crude means; cheap microchips. The Black Ghost knife fish is the result of millions of years of evolutionary refinement; but you could still say the same of micro chips.

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A Down poker

Is that project completely developed or is it still a work in progress?

It's in progress. I started working with "electrogenic" fish in 2005; ENKI technology was the title I gave it in 2006 when I was in residence at ENSAD in Paris. This was the point I realized I could create a treatment technology that might actually be functional. I had a bit of pressure to actually finish something and so launched the basic concept of ENKI technology. The funny thing was that reflecting on it now - that just marked a new beginning. (It took a year just to convince the director of Pepiniere that it was in fact a real project and not some conjecture in science fiction!). Coming to think of it I have never really finished anything, I am much more excited by the notion of continued experimentation. I don't want to finish discovering. The more I work on ENKI - the more things there are to do and try, it keeps opening up. There are always more questions.

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What is there left to achieve? And how much have you learned about cross-species communication?

There is still a lot to achieve. The 'treatment' side is just one layer of the onion. I started the project with the aim of communicating with the fish, generating an electrical signal and transmitting this in the fish in the tank, to the fish. Then I watch the the fish, looking for behavioral 'interactions' with the electrodes - generally if there is an electrical (connective) change to the electrodes, the fish is aware of this and investigates the electrode by swimming near it and around it (motor-probing responses). I also listening for a 'chirp' response. The 'chirp' response is a subtle modulation of the Electric signal, a specific fluctuation in the wave. The 'chirp' is used during like species interaction and communication. This is closer to the idea of language we have.

Experimentally there are factors which make this difficult to measure - The fish learns to associate the vibrations created by me entering the studio & opening the tank with a food reward. So any approach to the tank needs to be made silently, and the fish needs to be 'conditioned' to learn this over a long time. As the project progressed I became more interested in communication as something closer to an idea of commune. For the fish I see the communication signal they make more as a deep expression of self; a projected physical extension of the fish body, rather than 'language' in an anthropological sense. This communication is happening at a more primal level. In terms of the ENKi project I am thinking about this as a biological, or physiological connection between living organisms.

I recently discovered that I might be having a problem with what is known as 'superstitious' behavior in the fish; if I was a scientist in the academic sense, this would be a serous flaw in the project; something to fix, but for me it was a fantastic turn, giving the project a new angle all together. Its now becoming an experiment into animal Psychology, not just electro physiology. I don't want to say too much about this next phase but next year the project will look quite different.

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You recently developed the Opto-acoustic modulator and used it for an interactive work at FACT and Liverpool John Moores University for the National Science and Engineering Week. Can you give us more details about this interactive piece? How does it work? What were you trying to achieve with this project?

The commission was to create and interactive art work that used something other than keyborad or mouse. I was determined not to use a video camera either. The the Opto-acoustic modulator basically turns sound-waves into light-waves. It can take 10 audio channels and convert these into "AM" transmissions through 10 Light Emitting Diode arrays. I am fascinated by the notion of 'Amplitude Modulation' sending data using light waves. The idea was to use 'Hyalite' salt crystals, to broadcast sound through their 'ionizing' ambient glow. You interact with the light and can detect the data as sound using wearable sensors. Additionally, using Steve's 'muio' interface again, 8 light sensors detect movement around the crystals using a lens and light sensor (based on the idea a simple biological 'camera eye') these feed into MAX MSP controlling a soundscape.

I read on your statement page that you are currently "working on new experiments relating to the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears (Tardigrades; Fresh water extremophiles) and training Planarian worms. " Could you already tell us a few words about these experiments?

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Tardigrade

I have been researching the work of William Cross for quite a while, and finally decided that I needed to recreate his experiments (with a few modifications) It's quite interesting trying to work out what he did - the only way to know is to recreate it. In 1837, he found these creatures "Acari electors" as he called them infesting an experiment, he believed that these things "spontaneously generated" within his experiment, several eminent scientists of the time recreated the experiment with the same results! My experiment is basically a recreation of this experiment, augmented with a little more technology - with the aim of capturing this phenomena of electrochemical abiogenesis. The only problem is the experiment has to run for many months.

I am interested in all sorts fresh water microscopic life; its a great 19h century tradition. With a decent microscope, you can take any roadside moss cluster and explore the interstitial oceans of liquids trapped between damp moss filaments. Here you might be lucky enough to find a Moss Bear ( "Tardigrade" ) an obscure form of extremophile that lives in moss. Believe it or not, it really does look like a bear! This in its self was a reason for laboring days over a microscope just to see if it was real! They don't fit into the zoological classification system, and have been given a phylum of their own. It is believed it is able to survive space travel, and at this moment a small space capsule orbits the earth containing some "Tardinauts" (its hard to compete with that) I simply enjoy looking for them. I like to go looking for moss growing in all kinds of areas, from urban waste lands, to the Peak District. "Tardigrades" are able to survive about 120 years in a dehydrated state; I was sifting through very old moss samples from Manchester Museum to see if I could reanimate 100 year old dehydrated Moss Bears. apparently it is possible. I had a lot more luck looking for the living ones. Unfortunately my one Planarian worm recently went missing in the tank. It is 8mm long, and I dont have the heart to keep it in a petri dish. I am not sure where it is.

Is there any artist or researcher whose work has been particularly inspiring for you?

I don't know where to start! Louis Bec for sure. I am really into what SymbioticA have been doing over the past few years, and what they are doing for the "Bio-art" movement. Otherwise, at the moment I am looking at the work of William Bebe. To be honest - I have been trying to read a lot more science fiction lately, particularly 19th century science fiction, and science writing. Often the science fiction tells you a lot about the popular understanding of science at the time. More importantly, its a good antidote ploughing through contemporary research papers.

Thanks Antony!

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Related: El Niuton has a slideshow dedicated to the work of Simon Blackmore.

At the Artissima art fair last month in Turin, i discovered a new player on the local art scene: the Parco d'Arte Vivente (Park of Living Art).

It all started when i almost fell on my knees in front of an installation by Michel Blazy. The first time i saw his work was at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The installation Post Patman stank, rot, crumbled and formed mushrooms, attracted insects and birds but i love it.

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The work on show at Artissima, Le tombeau du poulet aux quatre cuisses (The grave of the four-legged chicken), is a skeleton laying on a bed of earth and surrounded by mushroom. The skeleton looks indeed like the one of a chicken, a giant chicken and as it is made of dog biscuits (made themselves from animal products) will be slowly desintegrating over time.

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The PAV was also exhibiting one of Jun Takita's sculpture Jusqu'aux recoins du monde, the sculpture of a brain recovered with bioluminescent algae. For years, the Paris-based artist has been interested in bioluminescence.

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Jusqu'aux recoins du monde

According to traditional classification, photosynthesizing organisms
belong to the plant kingdom. Plants transform light into energy but are not capable of bioluminescence --that is, they cannot emit light. Excepting a few species like the dinoflagellates, which belong to both the plant and animal kingdoms, bioluminescence is found in only a few animal species. Biological evolution has not
given rise to an organism that can both consume light as energy and use that energy to create its own light. However, over the last few years, genetic manipulation has made it possible to create bioluminescent plants. These plants/nonplants artificial organisms transgress the laws of nature.

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Light only Light, by Jun Takita. Image Yusuke Komiyama

It is easy to perceive a figure in the landscape within 10° of one's line of sight (the size of the visual field of a fist held out at arm's length). For example, constellations are based on the principle that one reads stars at a distance of up to about 11° from one another as part of a group. Even when we look at the sky, the human hand is the unit of reference for measuring an image. If an object exceeds this 10° visual field, we have to move our eyes in order to perceive it in its entirety. Vision is then constructed by the accretion of several images memorized by the brain. In 1998, the artist started to work on a garden project based on this phenomenon.

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On the left, portrait of Jun Takita

The elevated garden is to be situated on top of a building in Tokyo. As Tokyo is a very polluted city, it is not unusual to see gardens being grown on the top buildings by inhabitants in order to cool down a bit the temperature of the city.

The central element of Takita's own garden is a mineral sculpture composed of three walls forming a cave and a bush pruned into a hemisphere. The inside of the cave is to be covered with a bioluminescent moss produced with genetic engineering technology. The moss will emit light via photosynthesis. The visitor is led to a viewpoint along the axis of the sculpture, where the bush is framed by the cave. The distance from this point to the bush will permit the eye to perceive the whole installation at once.

The visitor is invited to discover a visual experience made possible through genetic engineering. During the day, the light of the sun is much stronger than the one emitted through bioluminescence, therefore the form of the bush will be lit by the sun, and its shape will serve to distinguish it from a dark background. After sunset the opposite happens: the bioluminescent background will be broken up by the silhouette of the bush, forming a negative figure (via Takita's paper and the notes i took during the artist's presentation during the round table, titled Places and creative processes of the living arts, and organized by the Parco d'Arte Vivente at artissima).

One of Jun Takita's works will be part of sk-interfaces which opens at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool on 01 February until 30 March 2008.

Last week i went to the temporary headquarters of the PAV to check out their exhibition Living Materials. It closed yesterday but will be traveling to Austria. I do not have the details about that second show yet. But when i do, i'll let you know because Living Materials is a very charming exhibition.

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Every work presented involves the public in a timed process cadenced by the cyclic rhythm of biological and ecological phenomena. Life and death are simultaneously present and aesthetically represented in the continuum of procedural works which ask us about the man-nature relationship in the age of biotechnology.

The works on show include Le Poulet and photos of Jun Takita's work but also:

0alemoncelli9.jpgEnnio Bertrand, The creator has a master plan (first created in 2003 under the title Lemon Sky and revamped for Living Materials).

An array of hundreds of lemons are pierced with small metal sheets, they are in fact Volta batteries supplied with citrus energy which powers tiny Leds, one every 4 lemons. Originally the lemons looked like the ones you can see on the image above but when i visited the PAV, the lemons were a yummy green as you can see on the image on the right. I actually liked that a lot, in yellow, they were too perfect, too plastic looking, but covered with decay they were more living than ever.

The artist writes: I imagined that the lemons during their "work" of withering and decomposing would give back the sun stored by the tree in his fruits during its productive phase in form of small flares.

I think it's fascinating that a fruit of nature through an electronic device can palpitate for some days. It seems the proof to me of our dependence on the environment, of our tight and deep bond to nature.

The project proposes a reflection on the energetic resources of our planet and re-explores one of the artist's theme of predilection: time. Six months of ripening, several days of life for the work and very short flashes of light, like snapshots of the passing by of time.

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The last work on show is Food Island, by Andrea Caretto & Raffaella Spagna. The complex water system feeds several interconnected little islands containing various natural elements: stones, plants or animals.

A pump dipped in a water container sends water which reaches each island through transparent tubes. The water produced through various natural mechanism or which is not needed by the island is then collected and sent back to the main water container. the whole installation constitutes a kind of hypertextual narration which explains phenomena of growth and transformation of the material, from inorganic to organic and vice-versa.

All my images.
and the press pictures from three sixty. Video interview of Michel Blazy.

Jens Hauser's presentation in Aix en Provence (part 1)

On Wednesday afternoon, last week, curator Jens Hauser gave us the low-down on the upcoming SK-INTERFACES exhibition which will take place on 1st Feb - 30th March in the framework of Liverpool 2008 European Capital of Culture.
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A skin jacket by Olivier Goulet whose work will be part of SK-INTERFACES

The event will demonstrates how artists today are artists using skin, materially or metaphorically, as an interface, and going beyond the descriptive surface of the skin, to explore issues of xeno-transplants, trans-species and trans-racial exchanges.

After an era of de-materialization ("everything digital"), contemporary art is showing a tendency of phenomenological re-materialization, a re-integration of corporality. Besides, instead of representing objects, graphic depictions or simulations, the art is gearing towards transformational processes with performance characteristics. Lastly, as the creation of the new Hybrid Art Category at ars electronica this year demonstrated, the existing categories are not sufficient anymore to represent the current state of technology-based art.

SK-INTERFACES is not about interfaces as we know them, nor is it about art on the skin. Instead, the exhibition aims to raise questions such as: What happens when we abolish surfaces? The cosmetic industry represent the skin as something which has only 2 dimensions, it is a surface for inscription. What is the third dimension hidden beneath the smooth surface? What does the interface become, if we leave behind the traditional man-machine mechanisms?

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Hauser showed us a fascinating 5 minute video of a performance where dancer Yann Marussich uses his body as an interface. Bleu Provisoire performance takes the audience to a journey through the skin, which the spectators traverse with their eyes. The dancer remains motionless, like a sculpture, during one hour. The dance is made by blue secretions which gradually come out of the artist's body as he sweats. The blue is used here to deviate from the idea of the red blood linked to man.

Science and new technologies have modified the way we perceive the skin. Examples:
The Victimless Leather Jacket,

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Image from Organ Farm

Xenotransplantation
There are a few examples of patients who needed liver transplants and were able to use pig livers as "bridges" to hold them over until human transplants were found (porcine liver perfusion). The liver of the patient was kept outside the body in a plastic bag and hooked up to the main liver arteries. In a case like this one, the skin doesn't fulfill its traditional role of barrier between the inside and the outside.

Stelarc's Suspension performances (which involved having his naked body carried around suspended in the air by inserting fishhooks into his skin) also go beyond the idea of skin as a surface. His performances materialize two fantasies: the masochist phantasm of having one's body skinned and the one of having one's body duplicated. In Suspension, the body is not limited to the skin anymore.

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Two works by Irish performanace artist Kira O'Reilly emerged after a residency at Symbiotica inthewrongplaceness.
She worked with newly dead pigs used for medical research. After the scientists had put the pig to into a non-recoverable anaesthetic and had taken the animal's lungs, she took a biopsy of the pig’s skin from which to cultivate skin cells in vitro, in preparation to work from a biopsy of her own body’s skin (more in Leonardo Electronic Almanach).

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Some of the works which will be part of SK-INTERFACES:

- Maurice Benayoun's 1997 installation World Skin. The piece while based on digital technology, searches to grab some materiality. Equipped with cameras visitors are invited to become a tourist in the Land of War. They move through a 3D space made of photographs and news images which presents a universe imbued by mute violence. When they «shoot» a snapshots, visitors can see that the topics are extracted from the universe of the installation. Visitors may take home the prints of their «Safari».

- Wim Delvoye's video Sybille II. The magic of the work lies in the use of extreme close-ups which turns the surface of the skin into a 3D landscape. That video is probably the most disturbing work i've seen in a long time.

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Culture de Peaux d"artistes/see also Skin Culture

- Art oriente Objet (interview) will also be showing some pieces in Liverpool.

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Polyacrylamide gel prototype of hymen construct with unisex cut-out

- Julia Reodica's hymNext Designer Hymen Project, unisex hymens sculpted with living materials and the artist’s body cells into a variety of designs for the application upon the human body (Adam Zaretsky my favourite "bioart punk" had it installed on one of his nostrils).

- Neal White will show a new piece.

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Photo credit: Tim Wetherell & Stelarc

More skin-related works highlighted during the talk:

Stelarc's Partial Head, a work which plays on the idea of confusing the surface and the interface. The artist's face was scanned then digitally transplanted over a hominid skull, constructing a Third Face, one that becomes post-hominid and pre-human in form, referring to the theory of evolution but going backwards. The data was used to print a scaffold of ABSi thermal plastic, using a 3D printer. The scaffold was seeded with living cells. The life-support system of the partially living portrait was a custom engineered bioreactor/incubator and circulatory system which immersed the head in nutrient kept at 37 C. The Partial Head became contaminated after one week.

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Image by Lisbeth Klastrup

Since 2003, French artist Orlan is working on The Harlequin Coat, an organic patchwork created with skin cells cultivated in vitro, taken from the artist and from people with various skin colour and origin. When the artist ordered the cells online, she realized that the racial category is still in use in databanks, although the cells are the same as epidermis do not contain the melatonin (the hormone that affects skin pigmentation). This prototype of a biotechnological coat, consisting of in vitro skins in petri dishes, symbolise cultural crossbreeding and hybridization. Harlequin Coat seeks to raise various questions: “Can skins of different colours be cultivated? What kind of information can be obtained from the donors? Can a person still be the owner of his or her cells? Does self-ownership continue to exist at the fragmented level? How are such issues perceived in various countries, and especially in the context of a non-western viewpoint??

Bio-Kino, The Living Screen.

Zane Berzina's Touch Me Wallpaper printed with thermochromic ink, so its colors lighten with heat — via a hand or a radiator.

Zbigniew Oksiuta's futuristic dwellings which act as living and autonomous bioreactors.

Melatonin Room, by Swiss architects Jean-Gilles Decosterd and Philippe Rahm.

The Telepresence Garment, conceived by Eduardo Kac to allow its wearer to be in the skin of someone else.

Some of the books Jens Hauser recommended: François Dagognet, La peau découverte; Christophe Dejours, Le corps entre biologie et psychanalyse; Didier Anzieu, Le Moi-peau.

More notes from the talks i heard at De l'objet de laboratoire au sujet social (From Laboratory Object to Social Subject), a week of lectures, screenings and workshops which took place a few days ago at the Ecole d'Art d'Aix en Provence.

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Jens Hauser and France Cadet cooking frogs and lentils for us (Image B-E-Art)

Previously: Eduardo Kac's presentation in Aix en Provence.

In 2003, International curator Jens Hauser curated the first exhibition in Europe of artists who use biotechnology as a medium for expression. More recently, he curated Still, Living in Perth, Australia and is currently working on Sk-Interfaces, a conference (on 08 – 09 February 2008) and exhibition which will open in January 31 at FACT, in Liverpool.

sk-interfaces will explore the idea of skin as a technological interface. The show will feature the work of artists who use biology as a material for art and new commissions from artists including Orlan and Zbigniew Oksiuta. The event will turn FACT’s exhibition spaces into a hybrid lab / art space where visitors will experience an engaging, critical and thought-provoking approach to how current technologies are changing our perceptions of the body and bridging the gap between science and art.

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Growing the semi living steak in a bioreactor for Disembodied Cuisine

Jens' was a two part presentation. In the morning, he discussed the meaning of "bioart" (which is also sometimes called "wet art", "moist art", "biotech art", etc.), how artists are exploring the frontier between man and animal and creating cultural discussions around biotech-related issues, the relationship between presence and representation (referring to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht'essay The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey), mimesis and real, dimension of the sense and dimension of the senses.

I'm not going to write down everything he said during his presentations but will just highlight a few key elements (well... at least those that got my attention):

Something in common that bioart has with performance art is that they both leave behind them only video documentation and some material remains. In the case of Disembodied Cuisine, the remains were pictures, videos and more surprisingly the remnants of engineered frog steaks that were so hard to chew that most participants spat the bits out.

Interestingly, the artistic project has concrete retroactive effects. By bringing the concept of tissue-engineered ersatz meat into the public domain, the artists have made it difficult for commercial firms to patent and make a profit out of "tissue engineered meat".

These victimless steaks refer to Winston Churchill's famous quote: Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.

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Image 7x7 sf

Hauser introduced us to TC&AP's latest work, NoArk, which is on view until January 6 as part of the Biotechnique exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The research project explores the taxonomical crisis induced by life forms created through biotechnology.

Developments in life sciences have created new ways for beings to come into the world, and new categories of existence that are challenging the order of the world. This requires us- humans to rethink our understandings and our relationships with our own identity/body, other animals, as well as the concept of life itself. The growing number of ‘labmade’ life forms requires special attention. In pharmacological factories, research universities, and other technologically driven institutions there already exists a mass of disassociated living cells and tissues in the thousands of tons. These fragments do not fall under current biological or cultural classifications.

NoArk is a Noah's Ark for the biotech age, an experimental vessel designed to maintain and grow a mass of living cells and tissues that originated from different organisms. This vessel serves as a surrogate body for a collection of living fragments which are presented alongside technologically preserved specimens of organisms. At the top are McCoy cells (what makes the work all the more thought-provoking is that the McCoy cell line originated from a human and is now classified as a mouse cell line), at the bottom are taxidermied animals. As opposed to classical methodologies of collection, categorization and display that are seen in Natural History museums, contemporary biological research is focused upon manipulation and hybridisation, and rarely takes a public form. NoArk uses cellular stock taken from tissue banks, laboratories, museums and other collections. It contains a chimerical ‘blob’ made out of modified living fragments of different organisms, which are living together in a techno-scientific body. Like the cabinets of curiosities that preceded the Natural History museum’s refined taxonomy NoArk’s collection of unclassifiable sub-organisms acts as a symbolic precursor to a new way of approaching a made nature.

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Image uploaded by Lisbeth Klastrup on flickr

The questions that TC&AP aims to raise with NoArk range from "How do taxonomical systems based on traditional classification accommodate life forms created by humans?" to "What could be the artistic and technological strategies for maintaining and exhibiting living collections of sub-organisms for long periods of time? NoArk presents ecology of parts as an attempt to observe the living world through a post-anthropocentric system. More in Visual Culture and Bioscience.

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Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974

Another book mentioned by Jens Hauser in his talk is Postmodern Animal, by Steve Baker which looks at how animal imagery has been used in modern and contemporary art, and in postmodern philosophy and literature, to suggest ideas about identity and creativity and raise questions about our relationship to animals. Examples of artistic works include Helena - The Goldfish blender, by Marco Evaristti, Carsten Holler and Rosemarie Trockel's Ein Haus fur Schweine und Menschen (A house for pigs and people), Joseph Beuys's three days co-habitation with a coyote, Dennis Oppenheimer, Dali, etc. But these works comment on animals as they already exist, not on animals as they might exist one day. Works coming from artists such as TC&AP, Joe Davis, Art oriente Objet, Eduardo Kac, explore the mechanisms of life itself.

That's the moment when Hauser put things straight about biotech art. Going back to 1993, the year when ars electronica titled its festival Artificial Life - Genetic Art but presented mainly artworks dealing with softwares, synthetic imaging, digital organisms, etc. It was more about creating life on a software and hardware level.

Ten years later, in 2003, Hauser curated L'Art Biotech at the Lieu Unique in Nantes. The exhibition engaged directly with the organic matter in a tangible and critical way.

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Patricia Piccinici: Laboratory Procedures, 2001

Confusion on the terminology: bioart works should not be confused with works that deal with the theme of biotechnology: photoshoped images, sculptures of chimera, computer programmes, etc. Yet those works often feed traditional art museums when they need to take a stand on the emerging topic of biotechnology. They are easy to show and keep in a gallery. Besides, they allow museums to keep their hands clean.

Jens Hauser ended his talk with a video of Eduardo Kac's, The Eighth Day, an installation which investigates the new ecology of fluorescent creatures that is evolving worldwide.

The Eighth Day is not meant to point the finger and say "transgenic is bad", it's more complex than that, the work is meant to raise awareness, to highlights the fact that whether we like it or not we are now surrounded by transgenic life. The work communicates to a larger audience the true complexity of the phenomenon, the visual impact of the artwork enables a better apprehension. The GFP becomes a means to communicate the message, it acts as a vector of social commentary.

Another issue is that a misconception of what is nature circulates, the world as we know it is a constant recreation of life, think of the wholphin (a hybrid, born from a mating of dolphin and a whale Pseudorca), the liger (a hybrid cross between a male lion and a female tiger), the zorse or zebrula (the offspring of a zebra stallion and a horse mare), etc. These genetic examples occurred spontaneously.

More books: L'Art Biotech, curated by Jens Hauser and its recently published Italian version.

Related: Oron Catts´talk at ars electronica; Bioart - Taxonomy of an Etymological Monster (original text.)

0aeduarddooo.jpgI've just spent four fascinating days at the Ecole d'Art d'Aix en Provence where a whole week of lectures, screenings and workshops are being dedicated to De l'objet de laboratoire au sujet social (From Laboratory Object to Social Subject). We explored the social, cultural and ethical issues regarding the living, human behaviour, human/animal/machines relationships and bioart.

Yesterday morning we went to the Fondation Vasarely to listen to Eduardo Kac.

Kac is often reduced to Alba, but while his presentation was leading us through some of the highlights of his 27 year long career, i realized that there's so much more than a GPF rabbit behind his name.

In the '80s, most of his works were of the performance kind and his main interests were (and still are) literature and poetry. In 83, he created some holographic poetry, and later on explored digital poetry then biological poetry. All the possible dimensions of communication are explored in his work.

The holograms translated his interest for the visual dimension of the words. With them he was trying to create an experiment of language destabilization.

In 85 he started to get interested in networked communication, the one that came before the web. The first networked medium he used was that good old minitel which made him realize how he could create anything anywhere and show it to anyone anywhere. His creation became immaterial.

The minitel work was called Reabracadabra, kabalistical dimension. He also worked with videophones, faxes, tvs, etc. Introducing a bidirectional process in a process which is usually purely mono-directional (tv, fax). Ex. Retrato Suposto - Rostro Roto (Presumed Portrait -- Foul Face).

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He found that distant communication is limited because it reduces the communication between humans to an exchange of sounds and images on a small and flat surface: the screen. The presence of the body is missing.

1986, searching for new forms of presence, he proposed the art of the telepresence which is, according to him, the contrary of a phone call (i'm in Chicago, you are in Aix en Provence). With telepresence you are still in Aix but you feel like you are in Chicago. There are tangible, physical consequences in that distant space of the acts i do here.
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Ex. RC Robot, an anthropomorphic robot controlled by radio.

Then came a second robot, very different from the previous one. It was not anthropomorphic and whether the first one was nearly 2 meters high this second one was very close to the ground. He called it Ornitorrinco. Being so low, its point of view was more similar to the pne of an animal or of a kid. Art can suggest this kind of change of perspective. People could remotely access the fully mobile and wireless robot and alter the remote location (teleoperation) via the telephone network.

In 1996, another work of telepresence, Rara Avis. Gallery visitors and remote participants could interact with an aviary containing 30 birds from the point of view of a robotic macaw. Phenomenological video.

By wearing the headset, the viewer was transported into the aviary and perceived the aviary from the point of view of the robotic bird. When the viewer moved his or her head to left and right, the head of the telerobotic macaw moved accordingly. The real space was immediately transformed into a virtual space. The installation was connected to the Internet. Remote participants could observe the gallery space from the point of view of the telerobotic bird too. They could also use their microphones to trigger the vocal apparatus of the telerobotic bird in the gallery.

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By enabling the local participant to be both inside and outside the cage, this installation created a metaphor that revealed how new communications technology enables the effacement of boundaries at the same time that it reaffirms them.

At the time, museum and galleries didn't have internet so Eduardo had to bring internet physically, he came with cables, creating transformations instead of only suggesting them. It's with this work, with Rara Avis, that he starts to explore relationships with the living, that he starts to mix the dimension of the living and the dimension of the non-living.

1994, Essay Concerning Human Understanding was the first work that have him engage with the living. He was asking the question (which at the time sounded a bit ridiculous): "Is there a sense of aesthetics in the non-human world?" We always refer to art in relationship with human beings. Art is made by men for men. Could it be possible to create art for non-human species? And if it is possible what would the impact of art for non-human have on Art?

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In Kentucky, a yellow canary was given a large cage, on top of which circuit-boards, a speaker, and a microphone were located. A Plexiglas disc separated the canary from this equipment, which was wired to the phone system. In New York, an electrode was placed on a plant's leaf to sense its response to the singing of the bird. The microvoltage fluctuation of the plant was monitored through a computer running a software called Interactive Brain-Wave Analyzer, a program designed to inspect the vital activity of an organism generally understood as devoid of consciousness. The information coming from the plant was fed into another computer, which controlled a MIDI sequencer. The electronic sounds themselves were pre-recorded, but the order and the duration were determined in real time by the plant's response to the singing of the bird.

Teleporting in an Unknown State (currently part of the retrospective exhibition of his work in Valencia, Spain). Plants are kept in a dark room. Through a video projector suspended above and facing the pedestal, remote participants send light via the Internet to enable this plant to photosynthesize and grow in total darkness.

The biological connection goes beyond the living or the non-living, the local and the distant, the human and the non-human.
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The 1997 work Time Capsule constitutes a turning point in Eduardo Kac's career. He inserted a microchip under the skin of his ankle (he still has the microchip implanted). Presence of the digital dimension inside the human body. It's the kind of microchip that pet owner use for identification and recovery of lost animals. Eduardo registered himself both as dog and dog owner. The chip is still under his skin.

It's also the year when he starts to work on his project to create a transgenic dog, K-9.

He then went on developing transgenic art, using techniques from molecular biology and genetic engineering to create living being in an artistic context. Instead of a dog he ended up creating the GFP rabbit.

The first transgenic work he created is called Genesis and starts with an extract from the Bible:

Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

It was chosen for what it implies about the dubious notion of humanity's supremacy over nature.

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He translated the sentence in morse code and then elaborated a simple conversion principle to translate the morse into DNA base pairs, using a system he invented and which is based on the four letters TCAG which represent the 4 chemical bases. From the sequence of letters, he had a laboratory produce a gene which was sent to the artist via FedEx. It looks like a white powder. Seeing genes out of a body makes you realize that genes on their own cannot do anything. One cannot talk of life by limiting it to the genetic context.

The Genesis gene was incorporated into bacteria. Participants on the Web could turn on an ultraviolet light in the gallery, causing real, biological mutations in the bacteria. This changed the biblical sentence in the bacteria. After the show, the DNA of the bacteria was translated back into Morse code, and then back into English.

0aabunnyvertde.jpgHe compared the work to a computer (input/output) and to the Rosetta Stone.

In 1997, he gets the idea of creating a fluorescent mammal, a chimerical animal that does not exist in nature. He is allergic to cats so he decides to use a rabbit. The rabbit looks like an albinos in day time but in the dark and using a blue light, the animal becomes green fluorescent.

It was created in 2000 with the help of a French research laboratory which censored the rabbit and refused to let Eduardo keep it. The artist then starts a campaign to liberate the rabbit and have it live with him in Chicago. My favourite action is the Alba Flag (2001) which he installed in front of his house to mark her absence.

2000 was a rather trubled year, people in France were still talking about the infected blood scandal , the mad cow disease, people were afraid of a future made of cloning and health uncertainties, digital doomsday, etc.

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The press jumped on the story but was actually more interested in the conflict between the lab and Eduardo than in the project itself.

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Hullabaloo and Oblivion

Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries is one of Kac's latest works. For the series, the artist made some "biotopes", living pieces that can be hanged on the walls of a gallery like a painting. Except that the works are living, they change during the exhibition in response to internal metabolism and environmental conditions, their exoskeleton is the frame. They are both subjects and objects. Each of them constitutes a self-sustaining ecology comprised of thousands of very small living beings in a medium of earth, water, and other materials. If you provide them with light and water, their color explode. The rabbit never left the laboratory but the bacteria of Kac's Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries could leave the lab, they are pet bacteria.

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The Eighth Day investigates the fluorescent creatures that are being developed individually in laboratories The Eighth Day presents them as a new ecology that brings together living transgenic life forms and a biological robot (biobot) in an environment housed under a Plexiglas dome, thus making visible what it would be like if these GFP plants, GFP amoeba, GFP fish, and GFP mice would in fact coexist in the world at large.

A biobot is a robot with an active biological element within its body which is responsible for aspects of its behavior. It has a colony of GFP amoeba called Dictyostelium discoideum as its "brain cells".

One of the objectives of the work is to demonstrate the the future of humanity is not limited to the traditional reproduction system. ANd that won't make them less human than we are.

Kac nevertheless insisted on the fact that The Eighth Day is his last GFP work because he doesn't want to become the Yves Klein of the green colour.

Eduardo is currently having a big solo exhibition at the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno (IVAM), Valencia in Spain (runs until November 11).

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