Second episode of the series dedicated to Medialab Prado's Interactivos? Garage Science (for number 1 press here), a workshop which mixed and matched software, hardware and biology and took place in Madrid a few weeks ago.
With Garage Laboratory, Andy Gracie (whom i interviewed back in the day when i was a diligent and industrious little blogger) wanted to examine the effects of electromagnet fields and radio waves on microbial species collected and cultured from the urban environment.
Using some DIY laboratory equipment, Andy's team developed a system of variable strength magnetic field generators and related apparatus which allowed them to observe the organisms as they were exposed and responded to various magnetic fields.
Can you tell us something about the cute micro-organisms you selected for the project? Why did you choose them? What have they done to deserve this?
Originally I planned to experiment with three different organisms; tardigrades, nematodes and magnetic bacteria. The project is based on and refers to the relatively new science of astrobiology and some species of nematodes and tardigrades have already been flown into space. It was important that the organisms used had already some connection with astrobiology or the general exploration of space.
Nematodes have been used to study how prolonged space flight can affect human aging, tolerance to cosmic ray exposure and muscular deterioration from weightlessness. They have always seemed quite poignant as they were the only living survivors of the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. The nematode canisters apparently hit the ground with an impact 2,295 times the force of the Earth's gravity.
Tardigrades are polyextremophiles, which is to say that they can survive a range of extreme environments or conditions and can regenerate after entering cryptobiosis. In 2007 some were packed on to a Foton-M3 spacecraft and exposed to the vacuum of space to test their ability to endure extreme heat, frigid cold, cosmic rays and deadly levels of solar ultraviolet radiation without air, water or food. On returning to Earth a large percentage of the animals regenerated and even continued to breed without showing any signs of harm.
The magnetic bacteria, Magnetospirillum gryphiswaldense, have magnetosomes in their cells with allow them to migrate along magnetic field lines. Recently, ultrafine-grained magnetite particles from a Martian meteorite, which resembled the magnetosome crystals of recent bacteria, have been cited as putative evidence for ancient extraterrestrial life.
In the end we focused on the tardigrades because they are, as you point out, the cutest. They are also fascinating creatures for a number of different reasons, which unfortunately for them will mean I will be forced to experiment on them in a number of different ways.
The project examines the impact of electromagnetic fields and radio waves on microbial species cultured from the urban environment. What did you find out during the experiments? Can we as human beings be worried about the effects of EMF and RW on micro-organisms? or are we just so much bigger it doesn't really matter?
The project was using magnetic field data sourced from the Pioneer and Voyager probes to generate corresponding magnetic fields inside the cultures of organisms. There just wasn't the time or resources during 'interactivos?' to study the results in any depth so we only made visual observations. When the tardigrades were first hit with strong magnetic fields they pretty much stopped moving and seemed to enter a sort of catatonic state. Normally after about an hour they would begin to move around quite freely again. I began to get the impression that the recovery time and the depth of shock was less each time, so maybe they were building up a tolerance. I really need to do some more work on that to be sure though.
There is still a lot of research being carried out on the effects of radio waves and magnetic fields on human health, and of course there is a lot of contradictory claims. It goes without saying though, that assessment of possible health effects from exposure to these kinds of fields is important because human exposure to such fields is increasing due to new and emerging technologies. Low frequency magnetic fields are suspected of being carcinogenic and an association is likely for breast cancer and cardiovascular disease, recent research has indicated that an association is unlikely. There also less well documented or medically researched conditions such as electrical hypersensitivity which are interesting.
In the animal world there is research into problems with migratory birds, bats, certain fish and insects, that are strongly dependent on magnetic fields for orientation or migration and also into sharks, rays and other fish that possess electric sense organs. Stress signals have been found in many plants that grow next to power transmission lines.
These associations are important as we immerse ourselves in an ever richer soup of radio and magnetic waves and fields and it is a relevant context for this project without being in any way its primary focus.
What was the biggest challenge you met with when developing the project and how did you overcome it?
I would say there was an accumulation of many small challenges rather than any especially big one - although lack of time became an increasing factor. Working late and drinking an inhuman amount of coffee went some way towards solving that one.
My work has always been on quite a large scale - even if i am working with very small organisms - so coming up with a device that would fit under a microscope was a new kind of challenge for me. Luckily I had a great set of collaborators and Marc Dusseiller, Georg Kettele and Martin Kern came up with some great hardware and software solutions which made the whole thing possible.
Using a form of silicone called PDMS allowed us to come up with some really cool devices that could contain the elecromagnets, other electronics and the organisms. It was a real breakthrough and has given me lots of new ideas about casting with resins and silicones as a way of building devices.
You mentioned during the presentation at Medialab Prado that Garage Astrobiology is part of a larger project. Can you elaborate on this?
Yes. I am currently developing a larger project of which the work we did at Medialab was just a small part. This project aims to use environmental data picked up from a wider range of deep space probes to allow me to create some form of corresponding environment within a range of different organisms which have some relationship with astrobiology. I intend to develop a way of getting meaningful data out of the reactions within the organisms and then use that data to generate a form of A-Life which would be hypothetically ideal for survival in deep space and alien environments. I am currently talking with the Deep Space Network and various people within NASA to see if I can get the live data directly from the space probes. I am also trying to develop connections with astrobiology labs to see if they can help me with getting information out of the organisms and with creating alien conditions on a budget.
As is usual with my projects it will be a combination of the functional and the dysfunctional, the utopian and dystopian. I like the idea of getting data from vehicles launched in the early 1970s, the time of utopian and romantic ideas of space exploration, and bringing them back to a current era of discussion where space exploration is a lot more pragmatic - a lot more 'down to Earth'.
Do you plan to push the project further? If yes, what would be the next steps?
That question is pretty much answered above. The project has a lot further to go and there is a lot of work to do. Thanks to the work we did at 'Interactivos?' I think the larger project has a much bigger chance of success and will go in some directions I hadn't originally intended. That's all good.
For other work I have some exciting new ideas about using new materials and new approaches to developing devices and robotics in conjunction with organic systems. And maybe even making work that is small scale. That would be quite radical for me.
Images from the Best of Astrobiology set.
Related: Interview with Antony Hall.
I can't think of any artist who manages to outdo Adam Zaretsky in the art of combining a somewhat comical approach with a keen reflection on the legal, ethical and social implications of new biotechnological materials and methods.
Zarestsky has co-habited during one week in a terrarium with E. Coli bacteria, worms, plant, fish, frogs, mice, flies and the lovely yeast. He has dedicated part of his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to playing Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits to fermenting E.Coli continuously for 48 hours and observing the impact the music had on the bacteria. In case you've never heard of this romantic singer, let me spoil your day with a video of one of his smashing melodies:
Zaretsky is a Doctor of Philosophy in Electronic Arts at The Department of the Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He's a bioartist, performer, researcher and art theorist whose work focuses on Biology and Art Wet Lab Practice. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world, including the MIT's Department of Biology, the Conceptual/Information Arts department at San Francisco State University, SymbioticA at The University of Western Australia and at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Integrated Electronic Arts Department.
As you might remember, Zaretsky teaches Vivoarts, an emerging and politically charged field that brings together art and biology, at the University of Leiden (NL.) The Vivoarts: Biology and Art Studio course explores the intersection between art and biology and discusses the many cultural issues involved in bioart -and more generally in the field of life sciences- through a blend of hands-on laboratory protocols, critical readings, and the production of contemporary artwork. The ethics of producing living art are debated and made more tangible and understandable by the use of living material/organisms into the class final projects.
I posted it last year already but in case you haven't seen it yet, here's 'Dangerous Liaisons', a short documentary on his class at Leiden University:
Zaretsky believes that we should "embrace our visceral and experimental mutant kindred. Life is not perfectionism. Life includes the open, onanistic and seemingly unacceptable faces of radical variation." As he states:
If I am a representative of any ideology, it leans towards appreciation of Full Breadth Genetic Alterity. If we are in the process of engaging in auto-evolution, then diversity, the inherent biological love of difference, implies that the human genome should be engineered with as wide a range of genre humans as there are art movements and swanky tastes in the world. Posthuman integrity is only guaranteed by an expanded aesthetics of anatomy, the more obscure the better... ! Let's alter our identity as a species by birthing versions of ourselves into every permutative potential of fleshbound imagination. Let's have a punk banquet of anatomy, a buffet of new senses, fancy new and multiple genital-orifice smorgasbords and the mad collage of multi-species brains. If we are to go this route, let's not start by being monocultural, paternalistic snotbags with assumed distinction ruling over the aesthetics of betterment. We must be done with the rhetoric of human enhancement.
I had the pleasure to share panels with Adam Zaretsky several times. The most recent was Media Art in the Age of Transgenics, Cloning, and Genomics, an event that the lovely rhizome people had invited me to curate. Now that i've finally recovered from the surprise he made us by starting his presentation with an extract from a biotech porn video he was working on, i feel that it is high time to 1. invent an opportunity to share another glorious event with him somewhere on this planet before it implodes 2. blog an online Q & A i had with him so that you can get to know him better. I focused this short interview on the work he has been doing in The Netherlands.
The experiments you describe in the video took place in the context of an avian embryology lab for non-scientists at Leiden University. How much knowledge did the participants have of biotech before they entered the lab room? What was their background? Does it take a long time before they can 'get their hands' into the genome?
The VivoArts : Art and Biology Studio Honors Class at Leiden was the first of its kind in the Netherlands. Since my class another Art and Biology Course has been taught at Leiden U. by Jennifer Willet and in April the third version will be taught by Boo Chapple starting spring 2009 (so sign up now.)
Thanks go out to Prof. dr. Robert Zwijnenberg of The Arts and Genomics Centre for investing time and brave direction to make these courses a reality and for organizing the breadth of disciplines being exposed to this sort of Bioethics Art Practice. The participants were from Art History, Sociology, Philosophy, Biology and even Theology... But, there is no Art Studio practice degree at Leiden U. so we put out the word and a few artists applied or just showed up.
The simple answer to your first question is, no experience is necessary. All Vivoarts labs are hands on labs for the untrained. I guess it's a sort of biology brut or outsider biology. Informed opinions on present-day and near-future bioethical conundrums are more readily coaxed out of non-biologists through a hands on approach. It takes time to get approval to teach non-professionals and students whose focus is not biology or bioethics. After clearance, the students can come in with zero experience and leave having made time-based, hybrid, new media, wet-lab, living arts pieces: transgenic embryo sculptures, GMO bacterial paintings and/or tissue cultured embryonic stem cell totemic fetish objects.
The difference between a technical scientific learning session and a Vivo-artistic laboratory approach is mostly qualitative. While engaging in the technics, we also deal with the relational issues surrounding this type of process: pain, death, responsibility, curiosity, the meddlesome sadism of a personal genetic footprint/signature/graffiti/, risk assessment between foreign species and the ecosphere as well as critiquing admonitions against the urge to fondle the folds of mutant love.
There were some reticent parties on campus. They claimed that they were worried their patients might be afraid that artists a la Moreau were treating them. (...) I think that the reaction to an art class in the lab doing 'important' transgenic embryology work in the name of non-utilitarian, 'frivolous' artistry reflects a fear of demystification of transgenic process. Is the fear of attention given to playful transgenic embryological research procedures limited to wariness to contend with animal rights advocates often knee-jerk responses? Or, is it because often enough, well-funded Transgenesis research is as equally 'useless' or has just as little chance of producing important data as a hands-on Transgenic Developmental Biology Embryological Sculpting Lab for Social Commentary. But, these balkers are University researchers. Why hide from eager students in a castle of learning? Transgenic human production is a contentious cultural issue that is in need of interdisciplinary research before it goes to market. If we want an informed public to help us gauge the eventual results of aesthetic human engineering, we need people with experience who have their own ideas about the process, the results and the price of genetic tinkering.
You mention in some of the written documents that plasmid injections were made with homemade tools. Hackers and amateurs around the world are experimenting with technology in a creative way as part of a broad DIY culture. Do you think that this DIY approach could apply to biotech art experimentations like the ones you perform? Where are the limits?
About half of my labs are 100% DIY. A lot of the Art and Biology crew are interested in the demystification of technology. The dorkbot skillshare mentality is more than a hot geek dating service. It's about showing that the technology, in this case biotechnology, is comprehensible and actuate-able with home brew strategies and some kitchen sterile technique.
For instance, the microinjectors for our embryology lab were made of glass pipettes pulled over a flame into small-bore needles. The plasmid was literally sucked up and hand pressed into the living embryos. We squirted into the embryos. The hope was that the microinjection needles were smaller than the embryonic nuclei and that, without microscopes, the plasmid would be injected or find its way into some nuclei for incorporation into the genome of the unborn pheasants.
This is not how an embryologist would work. The odds of success are already low without such haphazard application technique. Expensive machines are used to pull glass needles of the exact bore which will penetrate the nuclei of the organism of choice (mouse, rat, human, frog or fly embryos for instance.) Injections 'usually' occur through the microscope and XYZ microcontrollers guide the payload into the organism with finesse and acuity. Microinjectors cost over 100,000 euro and are not usually available to the general public (although I did use one at MIT to inject wasabi and cream cheese into Tobiko.
But less accurate methods like gene guns or direct injection of DNA are also used in today's gene therapy trials. These human trials, which may be producing germline alterations, emphasize the porousness of our collective genome. The history of embryology is built on cheap contraptions and closet incubators. Look at chicken breeders, both their social status and their successes. How many of them used strange feed or other 'pushing of life' techniques to make their prizewinning mutants?
So, I would say that persistence will outweigh the technological edge especially because no one has any idea of what life is, what the future holds and what the long term effects of even supposedly 'controlled' experiments will have on ecology, living being and the concept of species integrity. As far as I can tell, a tattoo gun with a single point needle dipped in the right plasmid concoction might be a great nano-transfectant for the lotek-biotech artist who still likes to draw. If it takes a lot of microinjections to get success when working blind... then gene tattooing is the way to go. (You could also buy a cheap microscope and improve your odds at least 30X.)
(Warning: Gene insertion may eventually cure cancer but right now it can also cause cancer. (i.e. Leukemia, see the case of Jesse Gelsinger).
Now, when it comes to DNA sequencing and plasmid design, this is just starting to be a tabletop possibility with cheaper sequencers and biobrick sets from the megaMaterialists over in Synthetic Biology. But, the learning curve is steep and can be expensive if you don't want to work with ready-mades. Designing your future pet's body plan or your own prehensile tail or an extra brain in your lovely daughter's derriere... that will take some trial and error. The effect is not just material. The genes are multifactorial. We haven't a clue as to what metabolism is. We can't even distinguish between enhancement and a living curse. But still, I'm hopeful.
The lab obviously triggered many questions and debates. One of them drew a thought-provoking parallel between animal research and animal sacrifice, a pratique which nowadays seems outdated and almost barbarian. I know that you are careful to comply with legal limits and are deeply concerned with the ethics of what you are doing and preaching. But did you mention this parallel between sacrifice and research in order to highlight the more sinister aspects of research? What are the most sobresalient points of the research/sacrifice debate that took place among the participants of your class?
First I wrote this:
Funerals Rites for Transgenic Pheasants: Rituals of Bio-Art Practice
Some artists are utilizing lab technique as a new medium to produce living and often mutant living art forms. As these 'sculptures' live and die, often at the whims of the artistic investigator, the personal, non-repeatable moments take on a ritual air. What kinds of rituals do interdisciplinary Art and Biology practices entail? How do they reveal the implicit rituals of science? What new performative rites come out of mixing ethics and esthetics in the laboratory? Scientists also have their methodologies of creative flourish and humane sacrifice. But, scientific and artistic play is often based on different paradigms of what the act of experimentation is. As artists learn laboratory technique, the rituals of science and new rituals of sci-art unfold, decouple and reconfirm magical thinking in both arenas. How does animal research relate to the history of animal sacrifice? What is the role of subjectivity in developmental embryology? Is transgenic protocol also a ritual for the cultural production of liminal monsters? And how does mutagenesis impede or coerce the imaginary in the lifeworld? Through an analysis of artists confronted with the responsibility of ending the life of transgenic pheasant embryos, (which they had altered with plasmids in the name of art,) I hope to show living rituals for new biotechnological processes as they are invented.
But to be more down to earth, this is complicated and needs regular talk too. First of all the students were guaranteed a good grade even if they choose to be ethical observers. So there was no pressure to be hands on. Secondly, methods of humane sacrifice were discussed even if the concept is an oxymoron. Legally, embryonic birds are not organisms in Europe. What they really are is unclassifiable, but they are not free living nor do they have fully developed nervous systems. So they are conceived to be dim or not fully on. They may be thought of as a group of cells on the way to becoming a full-fledged, free-living organism. For this reason, they do not have rights in any way nor do they have a single preferred humane sacrifice method. Actually, humane sacrifice is not a prerequisite in embryonic end of life issues.
Of the scientists I quizzed, the methods of sacrifice commonly applied were death by: autoclave, refrigeration, put down on ice or poured down the drain. I added to other options for my students: valium overdose or ritual sacrifice. The valium overdose was my idea of the most humane sacrifice for an embryo. It may have been the first time that an embryo was given such a respectful euthanasia. But, the ritual sacrifice option was wide open and I can tell you that we are still living in barbaric times.
Also, I offered to play executioner for my students. Often I had to not just respect their choices but enact them. It was a horrific part of the lab for me. But, I did learn a lot. I wouldn't dismiss the value of sacrifice in science, religion or even secular posthumanism. Some rituals were moving funerals about the traumatic pasts of the slayers. Some underscored visions of techno-obliteration, the War Machine (Critical Art Ensemble, see the first chapter of The Flesh Machine), which accounts for way too much of the world's economic and productive focus. Some of them were heartless and natural and sincere. One student's acts even inspired remorse for outsourcing an incineration. It is as if serial killing and bureaucracy were still strange bedfellows. All and all, the sacrifices were conducted in a responsible way even if they were non-utilitarian. The lab showed the range of human behavior when dealing with GMO snuff issues and unborn politics and it gave experience of the viscerality of transgenic process to the students.
Photo from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica
To be quite frank and honest, I am still in a strange state of being torn around these issues. I think abortion should be legal and believe in a woman's right to choose. Yet, I believe in embryonic isness: that there is something dignified about a developing organism. I am anti-war and think capital punishment should be abolished. I support some animal research as I have seen results that do help with disease. I do think the focus should be on AIDS and Malaria instead of prostate cancer and new cholesterol blockers. But it is not that simple. Often enough, I approve of experimental curiosity in general. I understand that we have a strange human gymnastic need to scope and poke everything to see how it 'ticks' or even just as pornography. I do think most biological research is just in-group magical empiricism but I also think that it is effective in a social cohesive sense. So, I guess I am old fashioned when it comes to ritual sacrifice even with a lab coat shaman behind the lab doors. Nonetheless, we humans could be less nationalist and provide global food, shelter, clean water, free rent and a 'work-optional' baseline to all humans. And, if you believe the news, many Bioart practitioners, myself included, lay claim to a sort of relational bent, attempting to go beyond anthropocentrism in the name of respect for the non-human actants of the earth. That is, many of us do consider all life to have an existential specialty which is their own and which is often superior to Homo sapiens narcissism in diverse ways of niche working and play. Yes, if we have it in us, we need to give back a lot of the land mass we have 'cultivated' on the crust of this planet to non-humans for their rights to freedom, space and daytime walks. But when it comes to embryos, I admit, I eat bunches of them on a weekly basis: caviar, eggs, raw seeds, grain, and bean sprouts. Being alive is a sort of hypocritical stance.
We cannot apologize to the organisms we use, even our flowers after death, because I doubt they would accept an apology. We cannot thank them, as some of the native peoples of the Americas still do, for providing us dinner or art materials, because I doubt they would say 'you were welcome.' In a sort of Taoist or Fatalist sense, we can try to welcome the hunger of the living consumers of our living and hence dying bodies (whether they be human, other animal, vegetable, bacterial, insectoid, fruity or fungal) as they come to feast on our inevitable temporary-ness, our becoming food for others. For this reason, I am anti-embalming and believe in green burials as we are just mulch in the long-term sense. In the short term we are entropic, greedy, sensual, hungry holes in need of sustainable release through passionate spectacle. (see my video Retool Earth.)
I often refer to this type of trial by fire lab as a Milgram Experiment without authority. I proclaim myself an amateur, I give the option to not participate and yet, when given the legal thumbs up, most people will do what they know is ethically tarnished. At the same time, fear of implication in the lifeworld, shame of causing death in general, while causing death, is more dangerous than modern primitivism. The Nobility of Neurosis (J.G. Ballard re/Search) is part and parcel to the Latourian concept of modern distinction as a farce. So, although I wish the Hague War Crimes Tribunal had authority over the nation I live in which has no respect for the Geneva Convention, the Nurenberg Code or the Declaration of Helsinki, fertile eggs are still a popular food particularly in green non-vegan circles. A well-made fertile egg omelette is no casual funereal ritual. Baroque and gourmet productions take time and the nuance and the taste is not lost on the pallete.
Just to underscore that I am thinking while acting the clown...
The fertile eggs were named during incubation. This is a list of their names:
One of your documents mention a project in Spain? Why Spain? And where exactly would you like to perform new researches? Can you tell us briefly what this project would be about?
Actually, I talked to Marta de Menezes of Ectopia in Portugal (another Bioart Residency to look into) and she said that Bull Fights, the Politics of Primitive Tradition versus the Elimination of any Appearance of Injustice and Bull Sperm Sorting for Breeder Profit (transgenic as all hell) were all popular pastimes in Spain. So if I was in Spain or Portugal, I might like to look for some off target mutations in the garbage bin of a major Bull Sperm Sorting outpost. Really, the FACS Bucket text was just an idea for a residency that ended up getting published in Portugal. Due to parenting responsibilities, I can't spend more than two or three months a year outside of the US. The WAAG Society and The Mondriaan Foundation have decided to host/sponsor a public course and performance over the next year in Amsterdam. I would also like to work on making more transgenic pheasant embryos so I can fine tune my imaging and maybe even discover something that might make a reductionist out of my otherwise sticky fingers. I am looking for more funding so send money people to Lucas Evers
Right now, I live in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Woodstock, USA. I am gearing up to initiate VASTAL: The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. I would prefer it function independently of any university so it would be obscure, DIY and edgy. But this would need a real budget even for a two-year planned obsolescence trip. I also consider pFARM to be conceptually ready to make the move to something more than a small collective. The Organic Biotech Fetish Farm has started to attract devotees and as a cult grows, so must its infrastructure. We are still accepting applicants on subservient grassroots level at this time. Although I have traveled widely, I ask myself which other nation is there that deserves the kind of lessons I mete out. I can smell the Ku Klux Klan hay in every corner of the world markets but the USA has taken Superpower-Slumlord to a new low. So, I figure New York is my tropical island in which to experiment with human volunteers and their gonads... VASTAL 2010 ... Know any strange hosts?
I wish i did. Thanks Adam!
In the news: Adam Zarestky is participating to the show Imagining Science that runs through February 1, 2009 at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Zaretsky and The pFARM Collective are part of the exhibition Corpus Extremus which opens in February 2009 at Exit Art in NYc. The book Imagining Science: Art, Science, and Social Change has won an award in the 2009 New York Book Show in the Scholarly & Professional category.
The Medialab-Prado people whose workshops i like so much i dedicated them 2 categories on the blog are launching the latest of their increasingly successful interactivos? calls for the presentation of projects.
A maximum of 8 projects will be selected for their production in a workshop that will take place in Madrid on January 28 to February 14, 2009. Happy project leaders will count with the help of instructors, assistants and collaborators. Pending application, Medialab-Prado will provide lodging in a Youth Hostel for participants residing outside of the city. They will also cover travel expenses wholly or in part for one person per selected project.
The theme of this edition of Interactivos? is Garage Science and its keywords include: critical design, bio-art, mechanical devices, impossible machines, Rube Goldberg machines, pataphysic, free hardware, fabbing, recycling, biocomputing, biology, biohacking, biopunk, "license to fail". Software, hardware, wetware! The selected projects will show innovative ways to make science, technology and art converge.
Now comes the best part: the Critical Art Ensemble will take part to the workshop.
Deadline for entries: December 14.
I liked 'The Rest of Now', the Bolzano section of the Manifesta biennale so much that i fear that i'll end up forgetting about the other exhibitions i saw at the Biennale this week. Two of the participating artists/architects took very literally the questions put forward by The Raqs Media Collective who curated the exhibition: What gets left behind when everything is taken away? What can be retrieved, and what can be remembered? How can the residual become the engine of meaning?
Over time, parasitic micro-organisms such as cyanobacterias and the Cladosporium genus of fungi, have occupied and taken over the walls of the abandoned Alumix factory. The restoration of the ex-factory means that the building is loosing its value as habitat for the organisms.
Architects Stangeland and Kropf decided to engage with this transitional state. The Naked Garden is generated by the mediation of different modes: biological propagation, mathematical abstraction and technological execution. A robot, programmed with the rules by which the fungi grow, engraves and perforates the wall already inhabited by fungi, thereby allowing light, water and wind to enter and to facilitate the basic conditions of life.
Jorge Otero-Pailos is an architect and theorist specialized in experimental forms of preservation. His contribution to Manifesta is The Ethics of Dust, an installation intended to preserve pollution and the dust that has to be swept away from the building during the renovation process. Pollution has negative connotation. Yet, it can tell fascinating stories about our social, cultural and industrial past.
During two weeks, Otero-Pailos and his team of architectural conservators coated in latex an entire wall of the a wall inside the ex-Alumix factory in order to trap the dust and any trace of air pollution that have accumulated over decades. The architect then peeled the latex off, displaying it like a semi-transparent and precious shroud.
Following the tradition of nineteenth-century archeologists, who made plaster casts of the world's monuments so that European academics could study the architecture of distant cultures, Otero-Pailos suggests a new way of looking at architecture and our history.
Manifesta 7 - the European Biennial of Contemporary Art runs until November 2, 2008 in Trento, Fortezza, Rovereto and Bolzano.
From what i can learn from the press we are living in food mayhem: yesterday morning a nutritionist was complaining on French tv that because the country had turned its back on the usual bread and jam breakfast in favour of American-style fat and sugar-loaded cereals, the population was at risk of fattening. In the afternoon, i was reading in La Repubblica that the soaring costs of pasta, bread, fruit and vegetables are making Mediterranean diet harder to afford. Italians are eating more cheap processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt (via WSJ.) The whole continent is complaining about the food crisis. Meanwhile, bananas are dying, eating local might not always be that energy-efficient after all and a livestock meltdown is under way across Africa, Asia and Latin America. An alarming report states that native breeds are increasingly being supplanted by Western farm animals, which may be less well able to adapt to their new environment in times of drought or disease. In Europe, some 98 per cent of vegetable varieties have disappeared over the past century and EU regulations are hastening the decline.
Mind you, researchers have devised new but rather unappealing ways to have us enjoy food like never before: fish are being trained to catch themselves, we'll be able to choose between meat from cloned animals and in vitro meat and encouraged to get better proteins by snacking on insects.
Matias Viegener and David Burns have added the corn issue on the table.
Back in 2004, Matias and David worked on an installation which i discovered only recently. That year, Fritz Haeg (of the Edible Estates fame) and Francois Perrin produced and curated the GardenLAb experiment. Set in a 1942 supersonic wind tunnel, the event explored the relationship Los Angeles residents have with their environment by experimenting and speculating on current and future ecologies.
Corn Study humourously addresses the future of human food production and the ongoing consequences of issues that range from the latest developments in genetic manipulation, mistreatment of plants and animal species, corporate control and profit motivation, diminishing genetic diversity, modification of our ecosystem, privatization of ownership of plant's genome, etc.
One of Corn Study's objectives was to develop a new relationship with the corn species.
While great effort has been put into the human understanding of plants, very little has been expended to educate the corn and teaching it about the humans that control its fate. The project creates a school for corn with an experimental curriculum to educate the corn in human psychology and sociology, the economics of commerce, important languages, current events and the history of colonialism.
Through the use of audio and autosuggestion the artists deployed Aldous Huxley's theories of hypnopedia: the most powerful educational device being unconscious suggestion to the embryo to maximize its developmental potential.
The school is set up on ten tabletops with different learning stations, with the corn seeds learning through audio speakers as well as by the use of electric fans behind a row of books, which carry knowledge through the air like pollen. In this program of accelerated learning, the individual kernel is not expected to learn everything -- the species as a whole will absorb the knowledge collectively. The variety of knowledge bases is hoped to heighten the corn's wisdom, especially since despite their enormous acquisition of knowledge, humans have acquired so little wisdom.
As the artists conclude in their presentation of the project: While it may take many generations before the outcome of our experiment can be demonstrated, we are hoping for positive mutations and raised consciousness in the corn, to be passed along to other species. At this stage of global development, humans can no longer be entrusted with full stewardship of the environment. Perhaps if other species can intervene, they will do a better job.
I asked Matias and David to tell me more about the school for corn species:
We've been hearing and reading about genetic manipulation for years now. I sometimes think that consumers got used to it, accepted the idea and wouldn't mind buying and eating GMO (or even cloned meat when it lands in our supermarket fridges.)
While we were interested in genetic manipulation we wanted to work away from it. The basis of Corn Study was the idea that corn had been studied and manipulated more than any other plant than perhaps soybeans. While we're disinclined to GM foods, it seems clear that all our agricultural foods have been manipulated for millennia. So we wanted to refocus the question of GM foods into the broader question of how humans have studied and changed our foods without any seeming consideration for the nature (or the education) of the foods themselves. What if we could give the corn some agency of its own, educating it about its human hosts. Our ironic goal was to find a way for the corn to gain some power over its own fate, to "speak out" if it could, by learning more about us and both the good and the bad of the human universe.
What does corn education involves exactly? Could you guide us through the whole curriculum?
While there was a lot of specific material, there was no defined curriculum for the corn school. Or maybe a better way to say this is that we could have endlessly kept adding educational material to the school. Here's a quote from the original text that was distributed to visitors:
"The curriculum is composed of texts, lectures and readings in political science, history, psychology, philosophy, foreign languages and cultural studies; we have tried to select materials that help outline the background of our global socioeconomic, political and environmental circumstances. For the student's personal growth we include tapes on self-actualization, meditation, hypno-suggestion, and personal dynamics. The songs are mostly pop music from the 60's and 70's, chosen to reflect the optimism of a time now fallen by the wayside. Included in our coursework are Noam Chomsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Marxist theory, Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill, Neil Armstrong, Machiavelli, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Abraham Lincoln, Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, Lao Tzu, Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Vandiver, greek myths, Howard Zinn, Ken Wilber, Malcolm x, Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Lyndon B. Johnson, Al Sharpton, Terence McKenna, Aldous Huxley, Paul Scheele, Michael Pollan, Henry Thoreau, various international Pimsleur language audiobooks, The New Christie Minstrels, Melanie, Paul Williams, Ray Charles, The Carpenters, Cher, Three Dog Night, The 5th Dimension, Donovan, Bread, Dolly Parton, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, the Doors, and John Denver."
Do you welcome both "natural" and modified corns in your classes? Is there any segregation?
We welcomed all corn to the school, including GM corn. We tried for a good mix of modern hybrids and ancient or "heirloom" corn varieties. We don't think one group is in any way superior to the others. The idea was to empower the species as a whole to make collective decisions and perhaps take actions to both improve their lot in the world and deflect any more human mismanagement of it. Halfway through the design we realized that all seeds of all species should be welcomed to the school, without distinction between crops and weeds, the good or the bad, which are all values that come from humans and not from nature itself.
Why did you choose to work with corn? Wouldn't animals seem like a more natural and rewarding choice?
We worked with corn because of the place it holds in American culture. Americans consume more corn products than any other nationality (and in recent years corn has been blamed for a host of our health problems.) We love animals but this sort of project was hard enough to mount with the immobile corn plants... it's hard to think how we would have done it with a herd of cattle.
I read that plants communicate. Do you expect your corn students to spread their newly acquired knowledge to their companions?
It's certainly possible for plants to communicate, and perhaps we succeeded in communicating with them, and that our ideas got passed along the botanical spectrum. Of course the real audience for Corn Study was human. We felt that in addressing the corn, the humans might consider seeing the universe from a less human-centric position. Just as we have no preconception about how these ideas would flow through to the plants, we were very open to how they might arrive to the human spectator. A key to our work here is the use of play combined with what we think of as vital issues of our times. Much of our work plays on corniness as a way to be serious, on the relation between pure, purposeful aesthetic or cultural ideas and the low, foolhardy kitsch of the ordinary world. We're not interested in art that's pedantic, but we do care about conveying ideas and questioning values. We're not especially interested in art that creates objects either, but we are invested in the way in which artmaking expands the variety of containers for ideas (and can make things in general look nicer).
Thanks Matias and David!
All images are from the installation at GardenLAb.
For the past ten years, Brandon Ballengée's work has been the observation of amphibian declines and deformities.
I find his work deeply moving for many reasons. One of them has to do with the way he communicates his work. He produces not only amazingly beautiful images of these deformed amphibians but also takes his discourse out of the white walls of art galleries (where aonly a certain category of people will ever get to see them) by taking people to field trips and let them experience first hand what his happening in their own backyards.
The Arts Catalyst has just released a video that documents the project to date: